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(Reuters) - A Christian group that once promoted therapy to encourage gays and lesbians to overcome their sexual preferences has closed its doors and apologized to homosexuals, acknowledging its mission had been hurtful and ignorant.
Exodus International billed itself as the oldest and largest Christian ministry dealing with faith and homosexuality, operating since 1976. It announced it would cease operations in a statement on its website on Wednesday.
The Irvine, California-based group's board unanimously voted to close Exodus International and begin a separate ministry, the statement said.
"I am sorry for the pain and hurt that many of you have experienced," President Alan Chambers said in a statement. "I am sorry some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt when your attractions didn't change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents."
Chambers said he was part of a "system of ignorance."
Exodus International has closed at a time of shifting attitudes in the United States, with public opinion polls now tilting in favor of same-sex marriage.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, with six doing so since last fall. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June on a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that restricted federal recognition of marriage to heterosexual couples, as well as a challenge to a 2008 California referendum that banned same-sex marriage in that state.
Ross Murray, a spokesman for gay rights group GLAAD, called the closing of Exodus International a step in the right direction and welcomed Chambers' move away from "divisive and demonizing rhetoric."
"But it's going to take a long time for healing to come, especially for the people who have gone through Chambers' program and have suffered because of it," Murray said.
Exodus International's mission statement was "mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality."
The group appeared to have changed its views incrementally, culminating with the announcement of its closure at the group's 38th annual conference on Wednesday. A television program scheduled to run on the Oprah Winfrey Network on Thursday will show Chambers meeting with people who said they were harmed by his therapy.
Last year Exodus International issued a statement complaining that the media wrongly characterized its methods as "conversion therapy." Instead, it said, it provided support to people seeking help in overcoming their same-sex attraction, through prayer and using the Bible as a guide.
The group also issued statements opposing violence against gays and lesbians and against laws criminalizing homosexuality. It said it opposed some methods of conversion, such as exorcism or "holding/touching therapy," in which the therapist would take a male client into his lap, hold him gently, and repeat affirming words in order to recreate the father-son bond.
California last year became the first U.S. state to ban such therapy for minors.
New Jersey's legislature was due to vote next week on a bill that would ban licensed therapists from performing gay-to-straight counseling for minors. Governor Chris Christie, who at first would not take a stand on the issue, has since indicated his opposition to the practice, raising expectations the bill will be signed into law.
Additional reporting by Francesa Trianni and Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn