- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2000

The top Presbyterian Church court Friday hears testimony on three cases of homosexual ordinations and same-sex "unions" upheld by a lower Northeast Synod court but now on appeal on the eve of the church's General Assembly.

Meeting in Baltimore, the Permanent Judicial Council for the 2.5 million-member church must decide whether presbyteries, or local associations, can decide policy on homosexual issues in opposition to national rules.

The court's ruling will come in a week or two.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), by legislative action of the annual General Assembly, has put in its constitution bans on ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals and marriage-like ceremonies for homosexuals.

Of the three cases before the court, two are on homosexual ordination and one on a same-sex "holy union." In defense, the parties in all three cases argue that local presbyteries may reinterpret national rulings on these matters.

"Clearly, the church constitution bans ordination of homosexuals, but we could not in good conscience be in compliance with that," said Ken Wolvington, an elder at Christ Church in Burlington, Vt. The church's backing of such practices is before the court.

"There are a number of church organizations spearheading the respective positions on this," Mr. Wolvington said. "There seems no way to avoid that."

Liberals have organized in groups such as the Presbyterian Information Project, which says that "far-right interest groups" are trying to use the courts to take over the PCUSA, evidenced in what liberals call an "anti-gay ecclesiastical trial" in Baltimore.

Conservatives, who are making the three appeals to the Baltimore hearing, say that local liberal activists are not allowed to simply violate national rules.

"These standards have been adopted by an open legislative process, and what [the liberals] want is to dismiss that by, in this case, a takeover of the judiciary in the Northeast Synod," said Robert P. Mills, associate editor of the Presbyterian Layman, the editorial voice of the conservatives.

This clash between national rules and local dissent has become rampant in mainline Protestant denominations with a hierarchical or "connectional" structure.

National bodies of Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Methodists and Episcopalians all bar practicing homosexual ordinations and same-sex union ceremonies. However, in all four churches, bishops and local clergy have done as they like, with only a few facing discipline.

The Northeast Synod court, which ruled in favor of local practices under a lenient interpretation of homosexual ordinations and "holy unions," said that General Assembly should in detail legislate a flat acceptance or rejection of the practices or the church courts will be flooded with local disputes.

The General Assembly opens June 24 in Long Beach, Calif., and several such "overtures," or resolutions, to establish explicit bans or allowances are expected to come before the body.

Another of the three cases comes from the West Jersey Presbytery, which persuaded the synod court that it can sponsor an openly homosexual clergy candidate because he is not yet ordained.

The same synod court accepted the Hudson River Presbytery's argument that its same-sex "holy union" ceremonies do not violate church rules because they are not marriages, defined by the PCUSA as "between a woman and a man."

Using this logic, the Hudson River Presbytery had voted to affirm "the freedom of any congregation to allow its ministers to perform ceremonies of holy union between persons of the same gender."

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