LONG BEACH, Calif. - After an emotional debate over one of the most contentious issues embroiling some Protestant denominations, the top policy-making body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has approved an amendment to the church's constitution forbidding ministers from conducting same-sex unions.
The decision, which came on a close vote late Friday night here, will take effect in June if it is ratified by two-thirds of the church's regional jurisdictions.
The same-sex debate has also involved other major denominations in the past year. For example, two ministers in the larger United Methodist Church have faced church trials for violating a law of their denomination forbidding same-sex unions. Both were convicted; one was defrocked, and the other was suspended from his duties.
Approval of the Presbyterian amendment came on a vote of 268-251. It was among the final items of business at the denomination's General Assembly, which has been meeting in this Southern California port city since June 22.
In the debate, supporters of the amendment described it as upholding a traditional Christian view of marriage. One church elder, Paula Metherell, a member of the local presbytery here in Long Beach, said that "the duty of the church" is to serve as "a moral beacon," calling people to a life of holiness.
But opponents of the measure, like George McCall of Missouri, argued that the amendment, if approved, would limit the ability of pastors to minister effectively to all members of their congregation. "Do not bind our conscience and tie our hands as pastors," McCall said.
The denomination, with 2.6 million members in 11,400 congregations spread from coast to coast, represents one of the most historically influential streams of Protestantism in the United States. Presbyterians have been heavily represented in American politics, most prominently counting Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan in their ranks.
The denomination's governing structure has significant parallels to that of the United States, with the Presbyterian assembly playing a role similar to that of Congress in passing constitutional amendments, which must then be ratified by the presbyteries, the regional jurisdictions that play a role similar to the states'.
But in recent years, the denomination has become increasingly riled by issues centering on what rights are due its gay members. And division over same-sex unions was evident last week among the Presbyterian delegates on the committee that formulated the amendment.
On Tuesday, by a vote of 25-22, the committee approved a statement declaring, "Scripture and our confessions teach that God's intention for all people is to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or in chastity in singleness." The amendment adds that church officers may not bless same-sex unions; neither may church property be used for such a purpose.
The amendment's wording is close to the law against same-sex unions adopted by the Methodists in 1996.
The vote Friday was not the first time Presbyterian leaders had attempted to legislate against same-sex unions. Six years ago, the assembly adopted a similar amendment, but it failed to win the approval of the needed majority of the presbyteries. In 1995, a similar effort failed to pass the assembly.
But since then, the denomination has seemed to lean in a more conservative direction. In 1996, the assembly approved an amendment barring the ordination of anyone sexually active outside the bounds of marriage, a move widely understood as aimed at preventing noncelibate gays and lesbians from serving as ministers, elders or deacons. It became church law the next year, after more than two-thirds of the presbyteries voted in its favor.
One of the organizations that supported that amendment was the Presbyterian Coalition. Its moderator, or top official, the Rev. Jerry Anderson of Glen Ellyn, Ill., said after Friday night's vote that there was "no room to gloat" for the amendment's supporters, because many Presbyterians who opposed the amendment were suffering "a lot of pain." Nevertheless, Anderson said he expected the amendment to be ratified overwhelmingly.
One of the amendment's opponents, Mitzi Henderson, a Californian who serves as co-moderator of the More Light Presbyterian Churches, an organization that supports gay rights, said, "I don't think it's the end of the struggle."
Questions among religious organizations of how to relate to gays and lesbians in their pews reflect similar tensions within American society and politics. The vote here, for example, occurred in the same week that the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the right of the Boy Scouts of America to bar a gay man from serving as a scout leader. And the Presbyterians' vote also follows the decision of the Vermont Legislature earlier this year to extend to same-sex unions a civil recognition that stops just short of calling them marriage.