(RNS)A United Methodist panel began hearings Tuesday todecide whether to bring formal charges against dozens of pastors whoparticipated in the blessing of a union of a lesbian couple.

The seven-member investigative committee, convened by theCalifornia-Northern Nevada United Methodist Conference, will determinewhether to charge 67 ministers with violating church law for theirinvolvement in the controversial marriage ceremony, held in Sacramento,Calif., in January 1999.

If a church trial determines the ministers are guilty, they could beremoved from the clergy.

The two women who were married in the ceremony defended theministers, saying they deserved praise, not punishment, the AssociatedPress reported.

"Now we share our church life with the gay community and share ourgay life with the church," said Ellie Charlton, who married JeanneBarnett. "It was very stressful being in two different closets. Nowwe're not in any closet."

Twenty-five other ministers also participated in the event, but werenot named in the formal complaint because they were from churchesoutside the California-Northern Nevada conference.

The minister who officiated at the wedding, the Rev. Donald Fado,said he believed the ceremony was comparable to an act of civildisobedience. He said he welcomed a church trial as an opportunity toforce the church to respond to the needs of its gay members, anddescribed the investigative panel's hearings as enlightening.

"It's like a pastors' school with distinguished scholars," he said."I've taken notes for future sermons."

The investigative panel, who met in the sanctuary of CommunityUnited Methodist Church in Fairfield, Calif., was expected to decidenext week whether to bring the charges before a national Methodistconference when it meets in Cleveland in May.

In separate cases in the past, the Methodist church disciplined twoministers for presiding over same-sex marriages and unions.