Debra Haffner had no choice. She had to go into the ministry.

The local resident spent a dozen years as CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). She tripled her organization`s staff, wrote books, and was quoted around the world as a progressive voice for sex education.

But after years of resisting the call to ministry, she finally succumbed. She added a Union Theological Seminary divinity degree to her master`s of public health from the Yale University School of Medicine, then became the endorsed community minister with Westport`s Unitarian Church.

Before leaving SIECUS, however, she embarked on a major project: the Religious Declaration on Sexuality Morality, Justice and Healing. A simple, one-and-a-half-page document, it stated: "All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation."

Nearly 1,000 priests, ministers and rabbis quickly endorsed the call to the nation`s faith community to rejoice in sexuality with "holiness and integrity." The number has now passed 3,200.

Soon, SIECUS was besieged by the religious right. Though no longer affiliated with the organization, Hafner realized the need for a group to counter the perception that social conservatives speak for the entire religious community on sexuality issues.

The Religious Institute -- "Faithful Voices on Sexuality and Religion" -- began in Hafner`s living room. "It was not about me needing to found a new organization," she explains. "It was about following God`s call, to help faith communities be sexually healthy, just and prophetic."

In less than a decade, the Religious Institute has emerged as America`s premier organization working at the intersection of religion and sexuality issues. From its 21 Charles Street office, a full-time staff of five helps clergy, congregations and denominational bodies address sexuality and reproductive issues -- and assists sexual and reproductive health groups in addressing religious issues.

Why is it necessary?

"There`s a silence about sexuality in most of America`s faith communities," Hafner says. "Two thousand years of history places the soul as distinct from the body. There is a belief that sexuality needs to be controlled by religion. Major denominations believe that birth control is immoral, and women and gay people cannot be priests." Those denominations` power and influence have led much of the rest of the religious community to choose "silence over action," Hafner says.

The result: Much of the clergy "ignore the sexual health of most people in their congregations." Hafner says. "Sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction and unintended pregnancies are real spiritual issues. But faith communities are not addressing them."

An ongoing political debate offers a window into the Religious Institute`s mission. "Catholic bishops are trying to influence Congress on health care reform," Hafner says. "We want to be a progressive voice saying abortion should be legal, healthful and available."

The Religious Institute has published open letters to religious leaders on sexual and gender diversity, adolescent sexuality and sex education, along with research reports on sexual health and justice. The Institute offers study guides on keeping children safe in congregations, as well as ministering to sex offenders.

The institute provides parent publications on raising sexually healthy children, and on "facing today`s challenges with wisdom and heart."

The Religious Institute also assists clergy in understanding modern reproductive technologies. "Ministers don`t always know the moral response to infertility," Hafner explains.

There is no typical day for Hafner. She spends half her time traveling, and is a frequent guest at seminaries. "Very few have sexuality courses for ministers," she notes. "Seminaries have not generally prepared religious leaders to deal with these issues."

Her job, she says, includes "training, teaching, writing, motivating, thinking and counseling." She has written six books. And she does it all while ministering at Westport`s Unitarian Church. Her denomination`s "terrific sexuality program" starts with children, and extends through adulthood.

As a local minister, she is a member of the Westport-Weston Clergy Association. She does sexuality training and presentations with and for the group. Congregations in that organization "tend to be mainstream to progressive," she says, adding, "there are churches in the area that don`t come to our meetings."

When she left SIECUS, Hafner says, "I thought I was jumping off a ledge without a net. But I trusted God`s call, and I`ve had amazing experiences. I`ve been all over the world, and I did the blessing at Jane Fonda`s 70th birthday.

"I think I`m blessed to be doing exactly what I`m supposed to be doing."

Dan Woog is a Westport writer. His blog is; his e-mail is