LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Homosexuals aspiring to preach in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) inched closer toward the pulpit with the blessing of the denomination's chief policy-making body.
A measure to remove a ban on ordaining gay and lesbian clergy from the church's constitution was approved 317-208 on Friday by the General Assembly of the nation's sixth-largest Protestant denomination.
The measure still must be ratified by a majority of the church's 173 presbyteries, its regional legislatures, over the next year.
Opponents of the ban celebrated the vote, which followed hours of debate on an issue the church leadership has been silent on for two years.
``This is a breath of hope for those of us who are fighting so hard to fulfill our calling,'' said Katie Morrison, a seminary graduate from Oakland, Calif., who was denied a ministership because she is a lesbian.
Conservatives who defended the ban as a reflection of Scriptural intent said the vote would deepen divisions within the denomination and might lead people to leave the church.
``This is a very, very sad time for our church,'' said Nancy Maffett, an assembly member from Colorado Springs, Colo.
The Rev. Jack Rogers, the denomination's top-elected official, would not predict whether presbyteries would ratify the repeal. But he downplayed the possibility of a split in the church.
``Those are loyal Presbyterians,'' said Rogers, referring to advocates on both sides of the debate. ``They really want to stay in this church.''
Presbyterians' sexual-conduct standard for ordination requires ministers, deacons and elders to ``live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.''
The ordination standard was inserted into the church's Book of Order in 1997 and withstood a repeal attempt the next year.
Ordination of gays is opposed by most of the nation's largest Protestant groups, including Southern Baptists and United Methodists. The Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican church, approved a paper years ago opposing homosexual behavior, but in practice it allows bishops to ordain gay clergy.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not exclude homosexuals from the church, but the ban's foes said it unfairly bar gays and lesbians from the upper echelons of local church leadership.
``Sex and sin is not up to us to judge or to condemn others. This is our own personal struggle with our lord,'' said Cathy Haley, an assembly member from Whitewater Valley Presbytery in central Indiana.
The measure would not require ordination of homosexuals, but would leave those decisions up to local governing bodies, its supporters said.
The ban's backers said they feared that putting the issue before presbyteries might set off a backlash.
``It will explode and do much damage to this church I love,'' said Paul Nelson, a minister from the San Diego Presbytery.
Russ Ritchel Jr., a minister from Winston-Salem, N.C., said some congregations might view the assembly's action as a sign that Scripture is no longer the authority for the denomination.
``I will go home to members of my congregation who will be so upset,'' he said.
The ban's defenders vowed to continue the fight when the debate shifts to the presbyteries. They said those regional bodies tend to be more conservative than the General Assembly.
In other action, the assembly sidestepped a proposal calling on the church to express ``moral opposition'' to abortion of fetuses 20 weeks and older, except to save the mother. The assembly on Friday referred the proposal to advisory committees for further study.
The assembly also rejected a proposal to require parental notification before the church's medical plan covers abortions involving minors.