He has spent much of his career attacking homosexuality, but disgraced Evangelical Reverend Ted Haggard has received sympathy from the most unlikely of sources, a gay rights group.

Soulforce has urged compassion towards the preacher after he was dismissed by the New Life Church and resigned as President of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) amid allegations of gay sex with a rent boy.

Soulforce Executive Director Jeff Lutes described the cleric as a “victim of religious bigotry.”

He said: “Rev. Haggard is just one more tragic example of how lives are destroyed by the lies about gay and lesbian people perpetuated by the NAE, the religious right, and both the Protestant and Roman Catholic Church. Taught by the church to hate himself, the only option from his point of view was to lead a psychologically and spiritually damaging double life marked by denial and self-destructive behaviour.

“Reverend Haggard is a victim of religion-based bigotry that regularly demeans and demoralizes gay and lesbian people and refuses to acknowledge that we are part of the American fabric, and that many of us form loving families and practice a deep faith in God.”

The NAE holds that “homosexuality is a deviation from the Creator’s plan for human sexuality.” In a 2004 policy statement, the organisation opposes legislation that would protect gays and lesbians from hate crimes or employment discrimination on the grounds that “such legislation inevitably is perceived as legitimatising the practice of homosexuality and elevates that practice to a level of an accepted moral standard.”

Haggard submitted his resignation as president of the NAE last week, shortly after allegations of homosexual activity were aired on Denver talk radio. On Saturday, Haggard was removed as pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs. In a letter to his congregation, Haggard wrote “there’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all my adult life.” He also wrote that the church’s overseers have required him to “submit to the oversight of Dr. James Dobson, Pastor Jack Hayford, and Pastor Tommy Barnett. Those men will perform a thorough analysis of my mental, spiritual, emotional and physical life. They will guide me through a program with the goal of healing and restoration for my life, my marriage, and my family.”

In reaction to the unfolding events, Mr Lutes said, “our community’s anger at Rev. Haggard’s hypocrisy is completely understandable. However, my hope is that our community will take the high road and extend an olive branch of friendship and support when he is ready to fully come out as a gay man. Dobson and the others will counsel him to bury, deny, and repress his sexuality even deeper than before.

“They will wound his spirit, and he is going to need our prayers and our compassionate message that God loves him, affirms him, and calls him to live his life openly with honesty and integrity.”

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