The leader of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), a strident opponent of same-sex marriage, resigned after being accused of paying for sex with a man in monthly trysts over the past three years.
The Reverend Ted Haggard, a married father of five who has been called one of the most influential evangelical Christians in the US, denied the allegations on Thursday. His accuser refused to share voice mails that he said backed up his claim.
Haggard also stepped aside as head of his 14,000-member New Life Church while a church panel condsucts an investigation, saying he could "not continue to minister under the cloud created by the accusations."
"I am voluntarily stepping aside from leadership so that the overseer process can be allowed to proceed with integrity," Haggard said in a written statement. "I hope to be able to discuss this matter in more detail at a later date."
He also told KUSA-TV late on Wednesday: "Never had a gay relationship with anybody, and I'm steady with my wife, I'm faithful to my wife."
The allegations come as voters in Colorado and seven other US states get ready to decide on 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 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 is not 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 also said Haggard snorted methamphetamine before their sexual encounters to heighten his experience.
Haggard and his attorney, Martin Nussbaum, did not return calls on Thursday night.
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.
Jones declined to make any of the alleged available to the press, but KUSA-TV reported excerpts from some of the alleged voice mails late on Thursday.
"Hi Mike, this is Art," one call began, according to the station. "Hey, I was just calling to see if we could get any more. Either US$100 or US$200 supply," the message said.
A second message, left a few hours later, said: "Hi Mike, this is Art, I am here in Denver and sorry that I missed you. But as I said, if you want to go ahead and get the stuff, then that would be great. And I'll get it sometime next week or the week after or whenever."
Jones said Haggard was referring to methamphetamine.
"There's some stuff on there [the voice mails] that's pretty damning," he said.
Haggard, who is about 50, was appointed president of the evangelicals association in March 2003 and has participated in conservative Christian leaders' conference calls with White House staffers.