June 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

Presbyterian Church votes to allow same-sex marriage

Leaders at National Presbyterian Assembly discuss ...
Leaders at National Presbyterian Assembly discuss ...: The U.S. Presbyterian Church’s highest council Thursday voted to sanction same-sex marriage

Detroit— The U.S. Presbyterian Church’s highest council voted Thursday to sanction same-sex marriage, redefining it in the denomination’s constitution as a covenant between “two people” instead of “a man and a woman.”

An assembly of more than 650 Presbyterian ministers and lay representatives approved the change on a vote of 429-175 duringthe church’s 221st General Assembly, which meets through Saturday at Cobo Center.

A majority of the church’s 172 presbyteries, or regional districts, must ratify the measure in the next year.

The Presbyterian leaders also voted to allow — but not require — ministers to immediately begin performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples in the 19 states where they are legal.

“It’s a historic day for us,” said Gradye Parsons. “We can offer people who are LGBT a church home where they can be who they are.”

The conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee Board of Directors issued a statement saying it “mourns these actions and calls on all Presbyterians to resist and protest them. You should tell your pastor and the members of your session that you disapprove of these actions,” the statement said.

The General Assembly, it said, “has committed an express repudiation of the Bible” and “thousands of years of faithfulness to God’s clear commands.”

Heath K. Rada, the assembly’s elected moderator, said the issue doesn’t define the church. “I think it’s historic, too, but I don’t think it’s definitive ... that we as a denomination are something different than we’ve been,” he said. “I think it’s a piece of who we are as we learn to continue to grow as people of faith.”

Kimberlee Runnion, 26, a member of the Presbyterian church from Easton, Pa., said she was thrilled the assembly sanctioned same-sex marriage.

“I hoped it would, but was cautious about it,” she said. “I feel like I’m being welcomed home. It’s just amazing.”

Alex McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians, a gay advocacy group, called Thursday’s action “an answer to many prayers” of same-sex couples.

“We will keep praying that the majority of our 172 presbyteries will confirm that all loving couples can turn to their churches when they are ready to be married,” McNeill said in a statement.

The Presbyterian Church becomes the latest and one of the largest religious denominations in the U.S. to sanction same-sex marriage. It joins a handful of others, including the Conservative and Reform Jewish Movements and the United Church of Christ.

Other church ruling bodies have adopted other approaches: the Episcopal Church, for example, approved in 2012 a prayer service for blessing same-sex unions.

The Roman Catholic Church, Baptist churches, Orthodox Jewish Movement and United Methodist Church remain opposed to gay marriage.

In a survey conducted in February by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of mainline Protestants said they favor same-sex marriage, up from 34 percent a decade earlier.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the country’s largest Presbyterian denomination with more than 10,000 congregations and a membership of more than 1.8 million. In 2011, the church voted to allow the ordination of clergy with same-sex partners, but did not recognize gay marriage. Since the 2011 vote on gay ordination, 428 of the denomination’s churches have left for more conservative denominations or have dissolved.

A federal court ruling favoring gay marriage in Michigan is before the U.S. Court of Appeals.

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Commissioners and advisors wait in line to debate a vote on whether the church should recognize same-sex marriage during the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church at Cobo Center in Detroit on Thursday. / David Guralnick / The Detroit News