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Seminary in Turmoil

United Lutheran board chair quits amid anger over appointment of president who led group that encouraged gay Christians to stop being gay.

March 14, 2018
 
United Lutheran Seminary Gettysburg campus

The United Lutheran Seminary was created recently through the combination of Lutheran seminaries in Gettysburg, Pa., and Philadelphia. But over the past two weeks, the seminary has been anything but united.

Many students and others are furious that the newly appointed president of the seminary -- the first president to lead the combined institution -- worked for five years for an organization that encouraged gay Christians to stop being gay and supported the widely discredited practice of "conversion therapy" for gay people.

Most people didn't know of that background when Reverend Theresa Latini was named president of the seminary. And although she has since said she rejects the ideas of the group for which she worked from 1996 to 2001, frustrations over her appointment are growing.

Part of the anger has to do with the time frame of Latini's work with a group committed to making gay people stop being gay. While public attitudes about LGBT people have moved rapidly (toward tolerance) in recent years, Latini worked for the organization long after the idea that gay people could or should be changed had support from psychologists and other scientists and health professionals. The American Psychological Association as far back as 1975, for example, said it was important to remove the stigma about being gay and to support people, whatever their sexual orientation.

Then there are concerns over whether the seminary named a president without most people knowing of her background. The board chair knew of Latini's employment history but did not share that information widely.

Students sent a letter to the board saying that many were "deeply wounded by the implications of President Latini's history and the entire student body is wounded by the lack of transparency and communication failures of the institution."

Amid a series of such statements, the board chair, Reverend Elise Brown, announced that she was stepping down. The board also said that it denounces "conversion therapy" for gay people and that it "deeply and sincerely apologizes for the lack of leadership it has displayed during these tumultuous times."

The group Latini led is called One by One, and it continues to advocate for gay people to stop being gay or to stop having gay relationships.

The Lutheran seminary shared a summary of a statement made by Latini at campus meetings about the controversy.

"As director of One by One, Latini said that she believed and taught that sexual orientation could be changed for some people, if not many. She apologized, acknowledged that this belief was wrong, and said, 'I do not believe that one’s orientation can change. I do not believe that anyone should try to change their sexual orientation,'" the statement said.

The statement added, "Dr. Latini explained that she was not a reparative therapist. She did not lead ex-gay support groups or counsel teenagers to stop being gay or lesbian. She acknowledged that she presented basic ideas of a reparative therapist, Elizabeth Moberly, and believed this path was a valid option for those LGBTQ+ persons who wanted to live in chastity in singleness or fidelity in marriage between a man and woman, the Presbyterian standard at that time. She stated, 'I completely reject reparative therapy, and renounce it.'"

Despite these statements, the controversy is not only not dying down but is spreading to involve other divinity schools.

A joint letter from the Lutheran Students of Harvard Divinity School and the Union Theological Seminary noted that many Lutheran students at those two institutions finish their pre-ordination studies at United Lutheran (and previously did so at one of the two seminaries that merged). The letter said that this tradition has been "jeopardized by the past statements of President Latini and the recent, deceptive actions of the ULS board."

Latini's past support for trying to make gay people stop being gay needs to be taken seriously, the letter said. "So-called 'conversion therapy' is theologically and morally bankrupt, incredibly dangerous, and antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ," the letter added.

The letter said that, as individuals, the signatories would forgive Latini, but that her record leading a group that hurt gay people "should have been disqualifying" for the seminary presidency, and that this record should have been shared widely before any vote on Latini took place.

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