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 conduct same-sex union ceremonies for gay couples, as long as the church does not equate such ceremonies with Christian marriage in either a spiritual or a legal sense.

While the decision does not carry the weight of church law and largely maintains the church's informal policy, the ruling nonetheless dramatically alters the dynamics of the debate as the church prepares for its annual meeting next month.

The church's Permanent Judicial Council met in Baltimore on Friday to hear three challenges to the church's positions on homosexuality. In one case, the court agreed with a New York group of churches that because the denomination's Book of Order does not explicitly prohibit same-sex unions, churches are free to conduct them.

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

The court delayed a decision on whether a Vermont church can openly defy churchwide standards for church leaders that call for "fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness." A decision on that case is expected in July.

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

In a larger sense, the decision marks the latest in a series of back-and-forth wins and losses for groups urging greater acceptance of gays 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 a statement calling the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." The Episcopal Church will tackle the issue at its Denver meeting in July.

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

"These are issues around which there are deep, and often conflicting, convictions among Presbyterians," the letter said. "It is also important that we hold one another and our church in prayer as we seek to be faithful to the biblical witness and the love of Christ for all people."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"These matters are best left to the local level, where people have relationships, rather than legislated as an impersonal policy at the national 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 questioned or challenged existing church law. But the third case from Vermont, which the court did not rule on, involves an open defiance of church standards for ordination and church leaders.

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

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

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