OSLO, Norway, July 13 (AP)--Norway's minister of churches upheld theappointment of an openly gay clergyman Thursday in a precedent-settingruling that defies the state Lutheran church's religious guidelines.

The decision makes Jens Torstein Olsen the first clergyman hired to preachin Church of Norway while openly living in a homosexual relationship. Italso has caused furious debate that some fear could split the church.

"I have today employed Olsen as chaplain for the Majorstuen congregation(in Oslo)," said Minister of Churches and Education Trond Giske. ``He wasclearly the best qualified.''

In 1997, the church's highest body, its 85-member national congress, ruledthat clergy who enter homosexual partnerships could not hold consecratedjobs. However, the church, which counts more 85 percent of Norway's 4.5million people as members, has remained locked in an anguished debate overhomosexual clergy.

Last month, the Oslo Bishop's Council, made up of clergy and church members,voted 4-3 to employ 51-year-old Olsen, even though he noted on hisapplication that he was living with a gay partner.

The council minority appealed to Giske, who formally employs state churchclergy, saying the appointment violated the national congress ruling.

"I had to decide whether the church congress can bind a bishop's council inemployment question," Giske said at a news conference. "The rules clearlysay that the church council cannot."

Tore Kopperud, deputy leader of the church's national congress, said theruling sets a bad precedent of the government deciding theologicalquestions.

"No one wants a government minister as the church's judge in theologicalquestions," he was quoted as telling the Norwegian news agency NTB.

Olsen lost a 1988 lawsuit against the church council when it denied him ajob preaching because he was openly living with a man. He has been fightingto be allowed to be a gay preacher since then.

"I'm really looking forward to starting as a chaplain," he was quoted astelling the Norwegian news agency NTB.

After Olsen's selection in June, seven of Norway's 11 bishops issued astatement strongly opposing the decision. At the time, head Bishop OddBondevik said the appointment could split the church, where the issue of gayclergy has already led to bitter disputes.

Last year, Norway's only female bishop, Rosmarie Kohn, faced a revolt amongher own clergy when she allowed openly lesbian Siri Sunde to return to thepulpit. Sunde had been barred after she married her female companion. Gay marriages are legal in Norway, with all the rights of heterosexualmarriages except church weddings and the right to adopt.