Tennessee officials closed an investigation into a so-called ex-gay ministry because of a lack of evidence to support child abuse allegations. But the Memphis organization that says instilling Christian beliefs can keep gays from acting on their homosexual desires continues to be the center of controversy.
The Tennessee Department of Children's Services began an investigation into Love In Action, which advertises homosexual conversion therapy for adolescents, after a 16-year-old boy's blog started causing a stir in the blogosphere.
"Zach" wrote in his blog that he was admitted into the facility by his parents after he told them he was gay.
He said he was to be admitted to Refuge, a camp associated with Love In Action on June 6 and was to remain there at least until June 20, according to a June 3 blog entry. According to some fellow bloggers who have been in intermittent contact with Zach, he gets dropped off at the facility daily and returns home with his parents.
Love In Action is supported by several Memphis-area churches, and accredited by Exodus International, an organization that describes itself as "a worldwide interdenominational, Christian organization called to encourage, strengthen, unify and equip Christians to minister the transforming power of the Lord Jesus Christ to those affected by homosexuality."
"DCS dispatched its special investigations unit to the facility, and after conducting a full investigation, determined that the child abuse allegations were unfounded," Rob Johnson, an agency spokesman, told The Associated Press.
John Smid, executive director of Love In Action, said the allegations were never described to him but he assumed they involved a complaint of psychological abuse.
The program, Smid said, "is to help kids to grow in their relationship with Christ."
In a May 30 entry on Zach's blog he posted the rules of the Refuge Program. Under a heading called Hygiene, it says, "1. All clients must maintain appropriate hygiene, including daily showering, use of deodorant, and brushing teeth twice daily.
Men: Men must remove all facial hair seven days weekly, and sideburns must not fall below the top of the ear (the top of the ear is defined as where the ear meets the face below the temple). Clean business-like haircuts must be worn at all times. Hair must be long enough to be pinched between two fingers.
Women: Women must shave legs and underarms at least twice weekly.
All: Only natural hair color is allowed. Hair that is colored, highlighted or streaked, must be dyed back to its original color, or the color must be cut out before entrance into the Refuge program."
Officials from Love In Action appealed for tolerance at a June 16 news conference. Phone calls to Love In Action were not returned by press time.
"It is our spiritual conviction that sexual behavior outside of heterosexual marriage is considered wrong in the sight of God," said John Smid, the program's director, who describes himself as "ex-gay," according to a transcript of the news conference available on the Love In Action Web site.
"This program is operated on the will of the guardian or parent. We will work with the minor children as long as they are not overtly distracting to their own program or the program of others," Smid added. "If it is shown that the client is overtly treatment resistant, we will work with the parent towards alternative options for their care and overall relational health."
For the past two weeks, a group called Queer Action Coalition, which was formed after hearing Zach's story, has protested outside the camp.
"They claim to present themselves as an alternative to the gay lifestyle but then say you are going to have a miserable life if you live this lifestyle," said Amanda Lefevre, spokeswoman for Queer Action Coalition.
Lefevre said that the group was organized after it heard about Zach's blog.
Wayne Besen, who studies "ex-gay" camps, said that there are at least 100 ministries across the country that offer programs that attempt to make heterosexuals out of homosexuals. Some are live-in ministries while others are drop-off centers.
"These ministries are a bastion of abuse where the unqualified pose as mental health professionals," he said. "It's ruining lives and no one regulates it."
He said the camps offer workshops created to train attendees.
"There are lipstick lesbian seminars and workshops for boys that tell them what kind of underwear they should wear," he said. "They also offer tips like telling you to grocery shop just before closing so you will go at a time when there won't likely be people you are attracted to."
Zach has not entered anything in his blog since June 3.
On May 29, the teen wrote that his parents sat him down and told him he was going to a "fundamentalist Christian program for gays."
"They tell me that there is something psychologically wrong with me, and they 'raised me wrong.' I'm a big screw up to them, who isn't on the path God wants me to be on. So I'm sitting here in tears, [joining] the rest of those kids who complain about their parents on blogs -- and I can't help it," Zach wrote.
His blog has received thousands of comments since it appeared.