The highest court of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ruled Wednesday that the denomination's constitution does not prevent ministers from blessing same-sex unions so long as it is clear that the ceremony is in no way comparable to a traditional marriage between a man and a woman.
The court also ruled that the denomination's laws do not bar openly gay men and lesbians from seeking the ministry. Once a candidate for the ministry is to be ordained, however, Presbyterian Church law requires "fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness."
Whether the decisions will stand for long remains in doubt, however. Opponents of gay ordinations and same-sex unions are proposing to add explicit prohibitions to the church's constitution, known as the Book of Order, when the 2.6-million-member church holds its annual General Conference next month in Long Beach.
Various Presbyterian churches on local levels have been blessing same-sex unions, and one New Jersey presbytery has allowed a gay man to become a ministerial candidate. The rulings mark the first time that challenges to such actions have reached the denomination's Permanent Judicial Council.
Backers of gay rights applauded the judicial decisions as a welcome departure from actions by some other churches.
"It's the most affirming statement of gay relationships that has happened in recent memory in mainline Christianity," said Frederick Clarkson of the Institute for Democracy Studies in New York.
"I think gays and lesbians will take great heart in that, even as there is a threat of overturning that very affirmation in the General Assembly." The nonprofit Clarkson Institute was founded earlier this year and is financially supported by various foundations to study what it calls anti-democratic trends in religion and politics.
Earlier this month, the United Methodist Church reaffirmed its prohibition of homosexual ministers and repeated its contention that homosexuality is contrary to Scripture. In March, the Central Conference of American Rabbis--the rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism--declared that their members are free to officiate at same-sex unions.
In handing down its ruling, the Presbyterian court said that ministers and local congregations "should take special care to avoid any confusion of same-sex services with services of Christian marriage." Same-sex couples should be told that their service "does not constitute a marriage ceremony and should not be held out as such."
During court arguments Friday in Baltimore, Gordon Fish, who represented the plaintiffs in the same-sex union case, charged that making a distinction between a same-sex union and a traditional marriage was a "sham."
"They didn't talk about being holy-unioned but about being married," he said, referring to a ceremony in 1998 at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., on which the complaint was based. "They didn't order a holy union cake, but a wedding cake," Fish told the court.
The case about ministerial candidates arose from a decision by the West Jersey Presbytery to accept an openly gay candidate for ministry who said he did not intend to remain celibate.
In a joint pastoral letter to Presbyterians, the church's highest ranking officers, General Assembly Moderator Freda Gardner and General Assembly Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, appealed for prayers and unity.
"Faithful Presbyterian Christians have diverse convictions on these matters. As we approach the 212th General Assembly, we hope you will hold the whole church, and especially those who are troubled by these decisions, in your prayers," they wrote.