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Lutherans vote not to punish gay ministers

An assembly passes on to a task force the issues of homosexuals' ordination and blessings for same-sex unions.

August 12, 2007|From the Associated Press

A national assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America urged its bishops Saturday to refrain from defrocking gay and lesbian ministers who violate a celibacy rule, but it rejected measures that would have permitted ordaining gays churchwide.

Still, advocates for full inclusion of gays were encouraged, calling the resolution a powerful statement in support of clergy with same-sex partners. The conservative group Lutheran CORE was critical of the vote, saying bishops would now feel more secure in ignoring denomination policy.

The 538-431 vote came on the final day of a weeklong meeting in Chicago -- and after emotional debate over how the denomination should interpret the Bible on homosexuality.

Like other mainline Protestant groups, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been struggling for decades to reconcile differences on the issue. An ELCA task force is near the end of an eight-year study on human sexuality, which is expected to culminate in the 2009 release of a statement that will heavily influence church policy.

The assembly voted to refer proposals on ordaining gays and blessing same-sex couples to the task force so it could make recommendations part of its report.

Current clergy standards require ministers to "abstain from homosexual sexual relationships." Bradley Schmeling, an ELCA pastor in Atlanta, was removed from the clergy roster this year after he told his bishop he was in a relationship with a man.

Even before Saturday's vote, liberal-leaning bishops had refused to enforce the rule.

In the adopted resolution, the assembly "urges and encourages" bishops to either refrain from or "demonstrate restraint in disciplining" ministers who are in a "mutual, chaste and faithful committed same-gender relationship."

"This is huge," said Phil Soucy of Lutherans Concerned/North America, which lobbies on behalf of gays and lesbians. "More than half of the people in the Churchwide Assembly have said don't punish anyone for what is a simple violation of the policy, where the offense is simply that they have a partner."

At the Chicago gathering, dozens of gay and lesbian ministers and congregation members defiantly proclaimed their sexuality. They distributed a prayer booklet that included first-person essays on the pain of being forced to choose between ministry and a lifelong partner.

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