Members of the largest denomination of Presbyterian churches in Baltimore are calling on their national body to change the definition of marriage to permit same-sex couples -- the first time the national group has considered such a change, local advocates said.
Delegates in Baltimore have approved a petition seeking to remove references that restrict marriage to a man and a woman in the Presbyterian Book of Order, which serves as the denomination's constitution.
The proposal will be forwarded in June to the full General Assembly of the church, recognized as the more liberal of Presbyterian bodies. If approved, it must still be ratified by a majority of the regional church bodies in the nation, called presbyteries.
"This was a real obvious thing that was wrong with our church, something we could change with a relatively small number of changes," said the Rev. Tom Harris of Govans Presbyterian Church, which sponsored the request.
"We want to put our voice out there that this is just, and it's currently discriminatory," he added.
Right now, Presbyterian ministers can bless the relationships of same-sex couples in services called "holy unions," but cannot perform same-sex marriages. Last week's vote by the Baltimore Presbytery, which represents 74 churches and almost 20,000 members in Maryland, was 76-71 in favor of the language change.
"It's a vote that provides real sustenance and hope for those who want same-sex couples to be treated with respect and equality," said Rev. Peter Nord, the executive presbyter of the Baltimore Presbytery, who was not present for last week's vote.
"At the same time, it's troubling for those with a traditional view of marriage," he said.
The close outcome followed months of debate. In the end, about a dozen ordained ministers wrote a paper defending their opposition to the change.
"It's a painful position to take," said one of those pastors, the Rev. Steven Carter of Christ Memorial Presbyterian Church in Columbia. "I believe that we have to speak the truth, but we have to do it with love."
Although he welcomes gay and lesbian people at his church, "when it comes to leadership positions and when it comes to the role of marriage, in the biblical picture of the world, that is intended to be between a man and a woman," Carter said.
"There are times when I wish it wasn't so clear," he said.
Under the proposal, marriage in the Presbyterian Book of Order would go from a lifelong commitment made by a "man and a woman" to a "lifelong commitment ... between two people."
Another sentence would be changed from, "Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man," to "Marriage is a covenant between two people and according to the laws of the state also constitutes a civil contract."
"We have great people at our church. ... I don't see why they shouldn't have the same rights as my husband and I have," said Jeananne Stine, a member of Govans Presbyterian who helped write the overture about marriage.
She and Harris drafted the petition with Presbyterian ministers in Massachusetts in mind. That state permits same-sex marriages, but any Presbyterian clergy there who performs such a marriage would be violating religious law, Stine said.
"I feel this is the new civil rights movement of our time, and I will keep working on this until it's a reality," she said.
Carter said yesterday that he doubts he will continue to advocate against the proposal, because church members are actively working on housing and social justice issues. "I don't want to get us involved in a fight over something that in the long run is just going to make somebody very unhappy," he said.
The Presbyterian Church U.S.A., which has about 2.3 million members in more than 10,000 congregations, has long debated whether gay and lesbians can serve as ministers or elders. Rules currently prohibit openly homosexual clergy, though the Baltimore Presbytery has sent various petitions, known as "overtures," to change those rules, Nord said.
The church body has supported civil unions in the past -- sending a letter of support to President Bush in 2005, for example. "There's probably more of a willingness to say that civil rights is an issue," Carter said.
"Presbyterians seem to be more willing to tightly define their own marriage within their own community, than willing to exclude people from civil rights," Harris said.
Some are concerned that a debate on same-sex marriage might encourage more congregations to leave the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. as they have in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and elsewhere over serious theological issues. Concerns about the role of gays and lesbians within churches has also prompted some Episcopal congregations in the United States to break away and align with bishops in Africa or South America.
Ultimately, if this passes overwhelmingly, "someone's not going to feel welcome," Carter said.
Nord hopes to overcome the differences in opinion.
"One of the things I'm committed to is keeping the family together and recognizing that it is only in diversity that we are able to fully understand the desires and will of God, and if any party removes itself from the discussion, we all suffer from that," he said.