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Convinced that churches aren't going to ease restrictions on sex, the American Humanist Association suggests that Christians shake off their sexual shackles by becoming humanists.

The unusual invitation by the organization of atheists, agnostics and other non-theists - which advocates sexual freedom among consenting adults - resulted from the recent refusal by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to relax its sexual rules.Considering the refusal to be a sign that churches generally will stick to their restrictions and anticipating a backlash among members, the association said in an open letter:

"Religion has for too long denied sexuality its legitimate proper place among all other natural human activities. Perhaps now significant numbers of Presbyterians and others in traditional faiths will understand that they have been humanists all along.

"We must therefore open our doors wide to them," said the letter, signed by the association's president, science writer Isaac Asimov. He said those rebuffed by the church's position on sex "have a home in humanism."

The organization's leaders contend that many church members will be driven to switch to humanism but, ironically, Presbyterian leaders claim just the opposite - that the rejection of loosened sex rules scotched massive departures from the church.

The Rev. James M. Efird, a Presbyterian scholar at Duke University, agreed, saying that what actually would have touched off a mass exodus would have been if the vote had gone the other way.

The humanist association says it has 5,000 dues-paying members nationally and about another 5,000 in local chapters, with 18,000 subscribers to its magazine.

The group previously had not made any specific overtures nationally to woo disaffected church members.

"In the past, we have sort of taken the position that we were always here for those who feel disenfranchised," but had not made that explicit, said Frederick Edwords, the association's executive director.

Noting that several Protestant denominations were reviewing their positions on sexuality, the association's executive board at a meeting in May decided to speak out if church change was not forthcoming.

Presbyterians, the first to act, on June 10 overwhelmingly rejected committee recommendations for modifying sexual standards to approve mutually caring premarital, post-marital, homosexual and bisexual relations.

Calling it a "momentous decision," Edwords said, "Basically it was the beginning of a whole development in Christian denominations . . . The decision not to move forward, to hold the line of doctrine, is one that could affect them and us, and could be the cause of great many people becoming humanists."

Edwords said other denominations had been watching closely what the Presbyterians did at their governing assembly in Baltimore because it provided an indication of what other groups are likely to do.

"We anticipate growth in our movement as a result of mainline Protestant denominations turning their backs on modern sexual knowledge," Edwords said. The Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also are considering revised sexual standards, although not on so sweeping a basis as in the rejected Presbyterian report.

Azimov, in his letter, said the Presbyterians' "watershed decision" will affect not only them "but Protestants of every denomination, as well as perhaps adherents of other faiths."

"I predict an exodus from the church of many forward-looking Presbyterains who are now beginning to see the handwriting on the wall, who are finally realizing that Christian values may not be their values."