NEW YORK, March 14 (AP) -- A proposal to ban blessing rituals for same-sex couples in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was defeated in balloting tabulated early Wednesday. The decision leaves the denomination's clergy free to conduct such ceremonies so long as they are not confused with marriages.

The vote is a victory for the liberal side in the conflict over homosexuality that has divided U.S. Presbyterians for 24 years. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has 3.6 million members.

The result was announced on the Internet news site Presbyweb.com, which has closely monitored the voting. The official count at denominational headquarters in Louisville, Ky., lags behind, but both sides have acknowledged for days that the proposal was dead.

Under the Presbyterian system, the measure to ban same-sex ceremonies was passed by the national assembly last June and sent to 173 regional legislatures, known as ``presbyteries,'' for ratification. A simple majority of 87 presbyteries was needed for passage but the count now stands at 63 in favor and 87 opposed, defeating the measure.

Hans Cornelder, who runs the nonpartisan Presbyweb site, said most Presbyterians oppose same-sex rituals but the proposal lost because those voting felt it intruded too much on the powers of local clergy and congregations.

``Very few people in the presbytery debates have spoken in favor of blessing same-sex unions,'' he said.

Presbytery voting continues through April.

The so-called ``Amendment O'' proposal was a conservative bid to overturn the policy set by the denomination's highest court in a ruling last May about a blessing ceremony at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

The court said the 1991 national assembly had defined Christian marriage as only between a man and a woman, ruling out same-sex ceremonies that are considered the same as a heterosexual wedding. But the court said that didn't bar clergy and congregations from holding same-sex blessing ceremonies that are not readily confused with weddings.

The Rev. Joseph Gilmore, senior minister at South Presbyterian, said the vote means, ``Presbyteries across this country have now recognized that when any two people, regardless of gender, intend to move their hearts next to each other ... that is about as deep and as human and as lovely and as sacred as it gets. And so it makes me very, very happy that in this one way, anyway, my denomination has found its way toward the light, toward justice, and toward tenderness.''

A random survey of Presbyterian members, reported by the denomination March 2, showed 57 percent backed a ban on same-sex blessing rituals. It was favored by 61 percent of the lay elders surveyed, but only 50 percent of pastors.

The Rev. Joe Rightmyer of Presbyterians for Renewal in Louisville, Ky., who campaigned for the measure at 22 presbytery meetings, agreed with Cornelder that voters found the proposal too restrictive and legalistic.

The Rev. Laird Stuart, a San Francisco pastor and co-leader of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians that successfully fought the proposal, said ``people are getting tired of intolerance.''

The next round of Presbyterian conflict comes at the annual national assembly June 9-16 in Louisville. Some 30 bills for that meeting propose repeal of a requirement that clergy and lay officers ``live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.''

Rightmyer predicted that even if the repeal passed the assembly, it would be defeated in nationwide voting by presbyteries.

But Stuart contended the balloting on the same-sex rituals indicates a change in mood.

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