(RNS) Mainline Protestant leaders in Southern California have calledfor the defeat of Proposition 22, the statewide "Limits on Marriage"ballot initiative that they said amounts to anti-gay legislation.

In a six-paragraph statement, local leaders of the Episcopal Church,United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ faiths voicedtheir opposition to the proposal, which would define marriage as onlythat joining a man and a woman.

The fiercely debated ballot initiative has been backed by RomanCatholics, Southern Baptists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter DaySaints (Mormons) and some Muslim officials in California.

Set for a March 7 vote, Proposition 22--also called the "KnightInitiative," after its author, state Sen. Pete Knight, R-Palmdale--isjust 14 words long: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid orrecognized in California."

Supporters say the initiative upholding current law is necessary inthe face of a recent Vermont Supreme Court decision paving the way forpossible gay marriages in the state. Federal law requires all states torecognize marriages performed in other states.

Speaking at the Episcopal Cathedral Center of St. Paul in LosAngeles, the mainline church leaders also detailed their support for bothgay civil rights and possible homosexual marriages--even though all of theirdenominations are divided on the volatile issue of the role of gays inreligious and secular life.

"From a more positive perspective, one may find reasons to besupportive of the prospective benefits and protections of contracts ofmarriage or the equivalent of marriage between couples of the samegender, if and when this becomes a possibility," the statement said.

"While we do not speak officially for our denominations, we dobelieve we speak for many others in making this recommendation" that theballot initiative be defeated.

Bishop Roy Sano of the United Methodist Church's California-PacificConference said anti-gay marriage activists must not foster "a statethat approaches hysteria and hatred" over the divisive issue.