WASHINGTON, May 24 (RNS)--In a major symbolic victory for pro-gay Christian groups, the highest court of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ruled Wednesday that individual churches and presbyteries have the right to conductsame-sex union ceremonies for gay couples, as long as the church doesnot equate such ceremonies with Christian marriage in either aspiritual or a legal sense.

While the decision does not carry the weight of church law andlargely maintains the church's informal policy, the ruling nonethelessdramatically alters the dynamics of the debate as the church preparesfor its annual meeting next month.

The church's Permanent Judicial Council met in Baltimore on Fridayto hear three challenges to the church's positions onhomosexuality. In one case, the court agreed with a New York group ofchurches that because the denomination's Book of Order does notexplicitly prohibit same-sex unions, churches are free to conduct them.

In a second case, the church agreed to let a gay New Jerseyseminarian continue with his studies, saying the church's ban on gayclergy applies to ordained ministers, not clergy candidates.

The court delayed a decision on whether a Vermont church can openlydefy churchwide standards for church leaders that call for "fidelity inmarriage and chastity in singleness." A decision on that case isexpected in July.

The ruling comes at a crucial moment for the 2.5 million-memberchurch as it prepares for its annual General Assembly meeting in LongBeach, Calif., June 24-July 1. Delegates will be asked to vote onwhether the church should issue a blanket prohibition against theblessing of same-sex union ceremonies.

In a larger sense, the decision marks the latest in a series ofback-and-forth wins and losses for groups urging greater acceptance ofgays and lesbians within religious life.

In March, Reform Judaism's U.S. rabbinic body voted to allow the blessing of same-sex unions, while earlier this month the United Methodist Church upheld its ban on gay ordination and same-sex ceremonies, as well as astatement calling the practice of homosexuality "incompatible withChristian teaching." The Episcopal Church will tackle the issue at itsDenver meeting in July.

In a pastoral letter announcing the decision, Clifton Kirkpatick,the stated clerk of the church, and Freda Gardner, the moderator of nextmonth's meeting, asked for prayers as the church prepares to meet andaddress the gay issue.

"These are issues around which there are deep, and oftenconflicting, convictions among Presbyterians," the letter said. "It isalso important that we hold one another and our church in prayer as weseek to be faithful to the biblical witness and the love of Christ forall people."

While delivering a reassuring ruling for pro-gay factions, the courtdid not break ground in any major way. Perhaps most important, thecourt largely said that attempts to change the rules on same-sexceremonies require a constitutional change, not a judicial decision.

In the New York case, the Hudson River Presbytery said a 1998same-sex union ceremony did not violate church law because the Book ofOrder makes no specific prohibitions against such ceremonies. The churchcourt agreed.

"The Judicial Commission held that the presbytery was in order inpermitting sessions and ministers to participate in services of blessingas long as these were clearly not considered or easily confused withmarriage ceremonies," Kirkpatrick and Gardner said.

The court also said individual churches and pastors should not usethe traditional Christian marriage ceremony for same-sex unions andshould advise gay couples they are not getting married in anytraditional, legal, or spiritual sense.

The decision prompted quick reaction from those on both sides of thedebate within the church.

"Now the church is saying, 'That which we have already declaredsinful, i.e., the practice of homosexuality, we now are going to blessthrough some kind of union and some kind of ceremony,'" said John H.Adams, editor of The Presbyterian Layman, a conservative churchnewspaper.

Scott Anderson, the co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, whichurges greater acceptance for gays and lesbians, said the decision wasreassuring but not especially surprising.

"These matters are best left to the local level, where people haverelationships, rather than legislated as an impersonal policy at thenational level, and the court has largely affirmed that," Anderson said."It's reassuring, but it really doesn't change much."

Neither the New York case nor the New Jersey case openly questionedor challenged existing church law. But the third case from Vermont,which the court did not rule on, involves an open defiance of churchstandards for ordination and church leaders.

Both Anderson and Adams agreed the most interesting and potentiallyimportant decision has yet to be issued.

"Vermont is the more pivotal case," Adams said. "These other casesall involve loopholes within church law."