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Southern Baptist leaders have moved toward a break with their historic principle of freedom for local churches.

"It's an absolute departure from all previous practice," says the Rev. Duke K. McCall, longtime statesman-educator of the 15 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant body in America.Congregational autonomy has been a distinguishing hallmark of the denomination since its organization in this country 147 years ago. So long as a congregation contributed, it could take part in national conventions.

Other than such financial cooperation, member congregations were free and self-governing. They independently set standards and policies without having to conform to any demands from the top.

But the denomination's executive committee, now under control of biblical fundamentalists, has initiated work on a proposal that would exclude congregations that fail to take stands against homosexual activity.

That issue, regardless of sharp feelings about it, "is a minor issue in comparison with what they're doing toward altering the basic character" of the denomination, McCall said in an interview.

"Freedom of the local congregation and its autonomy is supposed to be a basic concept of all Baptist churches," he added. "I cannot imagine a Baptist church that is not free. It would need another name."

McCall, 77, once the denomination's chief administrative executive and for 31 years president of its flagship Louisville Theological Seminary in Kentucky, said denominational leadership is on a "slippery slope."

"It really isn't the bottom, but a slide, and one more step down toward controlling congregations and ultimately controlling members," he said. "The moment you start setting theological criteria for membership, you've started down that slippery slope."

The dispute arose when the denomination's 77-member executive committee, an interim policymaking group, adopted a resolution in reaction to two North Carolina congregations that were weighing measures sympathetic to homosexuals.

The resolution, citing Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh and Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, said, "God regards homosexuality as a gross perversion and unquestioned sin."

Members of Pullen Memorial were considering allowing a "same-gender union" sought by a homosexual couple. Binkley Memorial is holding discussions about whether to license a homosexual member for ministry.

Beyond admonishing the churches, the committee directed preparation of proposals to the denomination's convention in June to change its constitution and bylaws to exclude representatives of congregations affirming homosexual practice.

A committee member, the Rev. Fred Wolfe of Mobile, Ala., said the two North Carolina churches had "laid down the gauntlet to the Southern Baptist Convention," and a stand had to be taken.

Baptist Press said several committee members indicated they weren't afraid of lawsuits if some congregations were excluded from the annual meeting because of views on homosexuality.

"I don't care if 10,000 lawyers tell us not to do it," Wolfe said.

The Rev. James Morton of Grass Valley, Calif., cast the only dissenting vote, arguing that denominational leaders should not take actions about congregations because they are constitutionally self-governing.

The Rev. Linda Jordan, Binkley Memorial pastor, said the executive committee proposal would make a congregation's "stand on homosexuality a litmus test" of being seated at the convention and amount to a "moral watchkeeper on the moral flaws of anyone who comes to a Southern Baptist meeting."

It's "another example of the obtrusiveness of the fundamentalists in affairs of the local congregations," said the Rev. Stan Hastey of the Washington-based Baptist Alliance, an organization of moderates.

"It's not just this instance," said McCall, who still holds a largely honorary post as chancellor of the Louisville seminary and lives much of the time in Jupiter, Fla.

"In the new way of operating, it's going to get worse and worse," he said. "There's no end to what they may have to do to keep the community pure. They keep redefining pure, get stricter and stricter."

McCall said two historic distinctions of Baptists - congregational autonomy and each person's "soul competence" to interpret the Bible as each understands it - uphold religious freedom for the group and the individual.

"That's all interlocked," he said.