GREENSBORO, N.C., March 29 (AP)--Reform Jewish rabbis Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a resolution giving the movement's rabbis the option of presiding at gay commitment ceremonies.

With the vote, the Central Conference of American Rabbis became the most influential U.S. religious group to sanction same-sex unions.

The resolution applies to the CCAR's 1,800 members, who serve at least 1.5 million Reform Jews. Reform Judaism is the largest and most liberal of Judaism's three major branches in North America.

Rabbi Charles Kroloff, CCAR's president, said the resolution shows the conference's belief that "gay and lesbian Jews, and the committed relationships they form with their partners, deserve the recognition and respect due to people created in the image of God."

The resolution calls for the rabbinate to develop sample ceremonies for rabbis who choose to officiate at same-gender ceremonies. It also said the relationship between two same-gender Jewish people is worthy of affirmation through Jewish ritual.

"This is a call to all religious denominations to bring the same prophetic voice to lift our nation from the bonds of prejudice to embrace all members of the American family," said Rabbi Eric Weiss, executive director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, speaking on behalf of the Gay and Lesbian Rabbinic Network.

Because of the issue's volatility, sessions at the group's annual convention here this week were held privately. The resolution was approved overwhelmingly by a voice vote during Wednesday's plenary session, CCAR officials said.

Two years ago, the rabbis delayed voting on a similar proposal.

The Torah condemns male homosexual intercourse, but Reform Judaism now supports same-sex civil unions and a decade ago approved openly gay rabbis. Some Reform rabbis have already officiated at same-sex ceremonies at synagogues.

Reform Judaism's rabbinate bases its position on contemporary understanding of homosexuality and the Jewish values of human dignity and justice.

Opponents feared the resolution would divide rabbis and alienate Reform Judaism from Israel, where it seeks stronger recognition.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a coalition of 895 Reform congregations, has approved resolutions supporting civil unions and nondiscrimination against gays, and the Unitarian Universalist Association has officially endorsed decisions by its clergy to perform same-sex unions.

Judaism's small Reconstructionist movement also has sanctioned same-sex unions. Since the mid-1990s, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association has allowed its more than 200 members to officiate at same-sex unions. The association's rabbinic handbook includes suggested same-sex union ceremonies.

In the Protestant world, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Episcopal church leaders are expected to take up the issue this year.

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