Saturday, June 10, 2006

An evangelical Christian pro-family group held a conference on homosexuality yesterday in Silver Spring, emphasizing that homosexuals can choose to change their sexual preference and live as heterosexuals.

More than 700 people came to Immanuel’s Church for “Love Won Out,” conducted by Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based group founded by in 1977 by psychologist James Dobson.

The conference sought to assist those struggling with their sexuality and help with their chosen conversion to a heterosexual lifestyle.

“There are people who are unsatisfied living as a gay or lesbian, and [the conference] shows them that it is possible to walk away from homosexuality,” said Mike Haley, who hosted the seminar-styled conference. Mr. Haley said he converted from homosexuality more than a decade ago.

The all-day conference, as dozens of protesters demonstrated outside the church, featured a panel of psychologists and speakers, many of whom claim to be former homosexuals.

Other ministry-based groups set up booths and exhibits, offering counseling and pamphlets to homosexuals, family members and “high-risk youth.”

During different workshops, several related issues were addressed: same-sex “marriage,” dealing with loved ones who are homosexual, responding to pro-homosexual theology and preventing homosexuality.

Pat Barton, 52, came from Augusta, Ga., with her daughter in hope of learning enough to help her 19-year-old son, who announced his homosexuality during his senior year of high school. Mrs. Barton, a registered nurse at the Augusta VA Medical Center, said her son isn’t especially open to discussing the topic, but she hopes he will someday change his sexual preference.

“At times, I think he’s really struggled with it,” she said, “but he has a good foundation in Christ. I have to have hope for him. For him to be in a situation that seems hopeless, I know that’s an awful feeling. But the Bible says that love never fails, and I believe that.”

Outside the church, about 70 pro-homosexual residents, elected officials and religious leaders held a vigil across the street.

Passing motorists honked their horns in support of the protesters, who held signs reading, “It’s OK to be gay” and “Focus on your own family.”

Deborah Mizeur of Takoma Park held a large, framed wedding photo of her and her partner, Heather, who is running for the Maryland House of Delegates. Miss Mizeur said she was disheartened by Focus on the Family’s promotion of “hatred and division.”

“There so many young people who want to be true to themselves, and they’re getting pressure from their parents and the church to deny who they are,” she said. “I’m a Christian and a lesbian, and the church that I go to, and the Jesus that I know, loves all people.”

Dan Furmansky, the executive director of Equality Maryland, which organized the vigil, said its goal was to “call Focus on the Family on the lies that they spread.”

“Every mainstream, accredited mental-health organization has discredited conversion therapy,” he said. “It’s been called potentially dangerous to the people it claims to help. It’s not a debate.”

Delegate Gareth E. Murray, Montgomery County Democrat, joined the demonstration and said that he is concerned that youths in need of guidance are outcast.

“God made each and every one of us, and God loves each and every one of us — unconditionally,” said Mr. Murray, who is also a minister. “If there’s a child in the congregation dealing with sexual orientation issues, will that child be led to speak to someone at the church?”

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