- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2000

The top court of the Presbyterian Church (USA) yesterday upheld homosexual candidates for ordination and same-sex "holy unions," opening the way for a stormy policy battle at the denomination's General Assembly next month.

The court said that a New York congregation did not violate national church rules when it held a "holy union" in its sanctuary because the event was not defined as a marriage ceremony.

In a second case, the court upheld a West Jersey Presbytery decision to allow a practicing homosexual to be a candidate for ordination because church rules only barred such behavior by actual clergy.

The court agreed that the standard for clergy of "fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness" is applied only "at the point that a person is considered for ordination, not for candidacy."

Lawyers for the West Jersey Presbytery, arguing before the court on Friday at a Baltimore hotel, conceded that the homosexual candidate "cannot be ordained" under church rules.

In announcing the rulings by the Permanent Judicial Commission, a "pastoral letter" from the church's top two elected officers said the court "reaffirmed what has been the consistent witness of the [church] on these matters in recent years."

The court "made it clear that the Presbyterian Church (USA) does not support gay marriage or the blessing of any relationship between two persons of the same gender that could be considered to be a marriage," wrote moderator Freda Gardner, and Clifton Kirkpatrick, church manager.

The assurances emphasized the technical nature of the 16-member church court's ruling.

The two Presbyterian leaders issued their pastoral letter to apprise the 2.5 million-member denomination that the ruling was not a full-scale endorsement of homosexual rights, which some have lobbied for in the church.

"These are issues around which there are deep, and often conflicting, convictions among Presbyterians, but it is important for all of us to understand the actual decisions rendered," stated Mrs. Gardner and Mr. Kirkpatrick.

"As we approach the 212th General Assembly," they stated, "we hope you will hold the whole church, and especially those who are troubled by these decisions, in your prayers."

The lower court in the Northeast region had in fact advised the General Assembly to legislate the issue so courts could avoid a flood of hairsplitting rulings.

The top court did not have time to rule on a third case in which a Burlington, Vt., congregation was allowed by the presbytery to dissent in principle from the "fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness" requirement for ordination.

In the ruling on the same-sex union in the Hudson River Presbytery, the top court said local congregations that continue the practice nationwide must be utterly clear that the ceremony is not a marriage.

"Ministers and sessions should take special care to avoid any confusion of such [same-sex] services with services of Christian marriage," the two Presbyterian leaders said, interpreting the formal court ruling.

"Ministers should not appropriate specific liturgical forms from services of Christian marriage or services recognizing civil marriage in the conduct of such ceremonies," they said.

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