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United Church of Christ backs gay nuptials

Vote isn't binding, but could prompt secession of parishes

ATLANTA -- The United Church of Christ's rule-making body voted overwhelmingly yesterday to approve a resolution endorsing same-sex marriage, making it the largest Christian denomination to do so.

The vote is not binding on individual churches. It could, however, cause some congregations to leave the fold.

About 80 percent of the representatives on the church's 884-member General Synod voted to approve the resolution yesterday, a day after a smaller committee had recommended it.

The Rev. John H. Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, said that with the vote, the rule-making body had ''acted courageously to declare freedom."

Traditionally strong in New England, the liberal denomination of 1.3 million members has been supportive of gays and lesbians.

The resolution calls on member churches to consider whether to wed policies ''that do not discriminate against couples based on gender." It also asks churches to consider whether to support legislation granting equal marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples and to work against laws banning gay marriage.

A small group of conservative congregations had proposed an alternative resolution defining marriage as between a man and a woman and had suggested that supporting gay marriage could lead to the church's collapse.

The Rev. Brett Becker, who represents a group of the UCC's more conservative churches, said his congregation, St. Paul United Church of Christ in Cibolo, Texas, may leave the church over the resolution.

''I would like to see us stay in the denomination and network for positive change," Becker said. ''However, many of my members have expressed very clearly that this decision would cause great consternation, and that, if this happened, they would want to see us leave."

UCC leaders said individual churches had not been polled about their views.

Formed in 1957, the United Church of Christ is distinct from the more conservative Churches of Christ, which has about 2 million members in the United States.

The UCC was criticized last year for a television advertising campaign featuring a gay couple, among others, being excluded from a church. CBS and NBC rejected the 30-second advertisements.

In the early 1970s, the UCC became the first major Christian church to ordain an openly gay minister. The church declared itself to be ''open and affirming" of gays and lesbians 20 years ago.

''This is a significant moment," said the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel of Cleveland, coordinator of a church coalition addressing gay and lesbian issues. She said the decision emphasizes that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are ''spiritual people who love and are loved by God."

But Becker said he doesn't think the vote yesterday was representative of the wishes of most church members.

''If we had put it to a vote of the people in the pews, it would have failed overwhelmingly," he said.

Some opponents of the resolution had favored alternative language endorsing same-sex ''covenanted relationships."

''I will find it much easier to sell back home, and quite frankly, to live with personally, if we replace 'marriage' with 'covenanted relationship,' " said Harlan Hall, a synod member from Wisconsin.

An amendment that would have made that change in language was overwhelmingly voted down, as were efforts to postpone a vote until next year.

Homosexuality also has been a divisive issue for a number of other churches.

The worldwide Anglican Communion has been divided since its US branch, the Episcopal Church, consecrated an openly gay bishop, the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003. The United Methodist Church is also debating a panel's decision to reinstate a gay minister who had been defrocked.

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