The leader of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals, a vocal opponent of the drive for same-sex marriage, resigned Thursday after being accused of paying for sex with a man in monthly trysts over the past three years.
The Rev. Ted Haggard also stepped aside as head of his 14,000-member New Life Church while a church panel investigates, saying he could "not continue to minister under the cloud created by the accusations."
The investigation came after a 49-year-old man told a Denver radio station that Haggard paid him to have sex.
Haggard, a married father of five, denied the allegations in an interview with KUSA-TV late Wednesday: "Never had a gay relationship with anybody, and I'm steady with my wife, I'm faithful to my wife."
In a written statement, Haggard said: "I am voluntarily stepping aside from leadership so that the overseer process can be allowed to proceed with integrity. I hope to be able to discuss this matter in more detail at a later date. In the interim, I will seek both spiritual advice and guidance."
Haggard, a 1978 graduate of Oral Roberts University, was appointed president of the association in March 2003 and has been called one of the most influential evangelical Christians in the nation.
He has participated in conservative Christian leaders' conference calls with White House staffers and lobbied members of Congress last year on U.S. Supreme Court appointees after Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement.
The allegations come as voters in Colorado and seven other states get ready to decide Tuesday on amendments banning gay marriage. Besides the proposed ban on the Colorado ballot, a separate measure would establish the legality of domestic partnerships providing same-sex couples with many of the rights of married couples.
Mike Jones, 49, of Denver told the Associated Press he decided to go public with his allegations because of the political fight. Jones, who said he is gay, said he was upset when he discovered Haggard and the New Life Church had publicly opposed same-sex marriage.
"It made me angry that here's someone preaching about gay marriage and going behind the scenes having gay sex," said Jones, who added that he isn't working for any political group.
Jones, whose allegations were first aired on KHOW-AM radio in Denver, claimed Haggard paid him to have sex nearly every month over three years.
Jones said that he had advertised himself as an escort on the internet and that a man who called himself Art contacted him. Jones said he later saw the man on television identified as Haggard.
He said that he last had sex with Haggard in August and that he did not warn him before making his allegations this week.
Jones said he has voice mail messages from Haggard, as well as an envelope he said Haggard used to mail him cash, though he declined to make any of it available to the Associated Press.
"There's some stuff on there [the voice mails] that's pretty damning," he said.
Carolyn Haggard, spokeswoman for the New Life Church and the pastor's niece, said a four-member church panel will investigate the allegations. The board has the authority to discipline Haggard, including removing him from ministry work.
"This is really routine when any sort of situation like this arises, so we're prepared," Carolyn Haggard said. "The church is going to continue to serve and be welcoming to our community. That's a priority."
Richard Cizik, vice-president for government affairs for the evangelicals association, expressed shock.
"Is this something I can imagine of Ted Haggard? No," he said.