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Presbyterians vote to ban gay unions

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LONG BEACH, Calif. — After an emotional debate over one of the most contentious issues embroiling some Protestant denominations, the top policymaking body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has approved an amendment to the church's constitution forbidding ministers from conducting same-sex unions.

The decision, which came on a close vote late Friday night, will take effect next June if ratified by two-thirds of the church's regional jurisdictions.

Approval of the Presbyterian amendment came on a vote of 268-251. It was among the final items of business at the denomination's General Assembly, which has been meeting here since June 22.

The denomination, with 2.6 million members, represents one of the most historically influential streams of Protestantism in the United States.

On Tuesday, by a vote of 25-22, the committee that formulated the amendment approved a statement declaring, "Scripture and our confessions teach that God's intention for all people is to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or in chastity in singleness." The amendment adds that church officers may not bless same-sex unions.

The vote Friday was not the first time Presbyterian leaders had attempted to legislate against same-sex unions. Six years ago, the assembly adopted a similar amendment, but it failed to win the approval of the needed majority of the presbyteries. In 1995, a similar effort failed to pass the assembly.

But since then, the denomination has seemed to lean in a more conservative direction. In 1996, the assembly approved an amendment barring the ordination of anyone sexually active outside the bounds of marriage, a move widely understood as aimed at preventing noncelibate gays and lesbians from serving as ministers, elders or deacons. It became church law the next year.

Controversial questions among religious organizations of how to relate to gays and lesbians in their pews reflect similar tensions within U.S. society and politics. The vote here, for example, occurred in the same week as the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the right of the Boy Scouts of America to bar a gay man from serving as a scout leader.