EHarmony.com Inc.'s recent decision to provide a same-sex dating service has provoked a backlash among some in the conservative Christian community, who were once the company's most loyal supporters and reliable customers.

The reaction stems from Pasadena-based eHarmony's announcement two weeks ago that it would settle a New Jersey discrimination lawsuit by creating CompatiblePartners.net, a same-sex dating site. EHarmony and its born-again Christian founder, Neil Clark Warren, had resisted offering such a service for years.

EHarmony officials declined to discuss at length the decision to offer a same-sex service, citing a pending class-action lawsuit in California comparable to the New Jersey case. The company limited its comments to an e-mail response, in which Antone Johnson, eHarmony's vice president of legal affairs, wrote: "In the end, the company decided it was best for our business and customers to move beyond this legal dispute in order to focus full time on helping our users find long-term relationships."


Warren's stand against same-sex dating and the close ties he cultivated with the conservative Christian movement in eHarmony's early years endeared him to the religious right. They helped make eHarmony, with more than 20 million registered users over its history, one of the top three dating sites on the Internet alongside Match.com LLC and Yahoo Inc.'s YahooPersonals.com.

But some of the same conservative groups that used to praise the company are now criticizing it for what they see as a betrayal. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called eHarmony's decision "distressing and damaging" and asked members to contact eHarmony to express disappointment.

Peter LaBarbera, president of Chicago-based Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, said eHarmony "sold out faith-based businesses" and added that he would encourage Christian singles to turn to other dating Web sites such as ChristianCafe.com and SinglesofFaith.com.

LaBarbera said he believes that some Christians will abandon eHarmony, noting, "It's created a huge controversy, and that can't help business." EHarmony is a major player in the online personals market, which was worth just less than $1 billion this year and is projected to grow to $1.6 billion by 2013, said David Card, an analyst at Jupiter Research.

Joe Tracy, publisher of Online Dating Magazine, said it's too early to tell whether eHarmony's recent action will dent its market share. But he said the company is in a bind: It will have to contend with a disgruntled base of customers, while trying to win over gays and lesbians who felt shunned by eHarmony for years.

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