VANCOUVER, British Columbia, June 16 (RNS)--Top Jehovah's Witnesses in NorthAmerica are denying a report out of Britain that the religion has endeda controversial policy forbidding members from accepting bloodtransfusions.

Jehovah's Witness officials in New York and Toronto said the faith'sleaders have made only a minor ``procedural'' change in how a Jehovah'sWitnesses who accepts a blood transfusion during a medical operationwill be disciplined.

The new rule--which was quietly adopted in a private meeting of thereligion's leaders in April and has not yet been fully explained to allthe world's Witnesses--stipulates that members who take blood will nolonger be actively excommunicated, or ``disfellowshipped,'' by thereligion.

Instead, members who accept blood transfusions will be judged tohave voluntarily ``disassociated'' themselves from the 3 million-memberdenomination, whose adherents also refuse military service and considerother Christian churches to be ruled by Satan.

Canadian Jehovah's Witness official Dennis Charland said the faithcontinues to teach that the God of the Bible, whom Witnesses callJehovah, literally commands them to ``abstain from blood''--asmentioned in Acts 15:20 and other biblical passages. The penalty forthis sin is to lose access to spiritual paradise.

James Pellechia, a Witness spokesman at Watch Tower headquarters inBrooklyn, N.Y., said The Times of London reporter who wrote the articlealleging a change in policy, which was picked up wire services andnewspapers in the United States, Canada and Britain, ``was trying tomake mischief."

"(The reporter) called it an `extraordinary U-turn' for theJehovah's Witnesses. It's no turn whatsoever. It's a minor change inprocedural terminology,'' he said.

However, a University of Victoria anthropologist who has written abook about the Jehovah's Witnesses said she believes the religion'sleaders changed the wording of their blood-exchange policy to make iteasier to legally fend off people who have been shunned by the religion.

``This is not a shift in doctrine. It's just a shift in legalresponsibility, in my opinion, to avoid lawsuits,'' said HeatherBotting, a former Witness who co-authored the book, ``The OrwellianWorld of the Jehovah's Witnesses'' (University of Toronto Press).

``Since the Jehovah's Witnesses have been in so much trouble withlawsuits over the past 25 years from people who have beenexcommunicated, they're trying to make it now seem that it's your ownfault if you leave the religion. It would make it much more difficultfor an individual to argue a case against the Witnesses in court.''

Asked to respond to the anthropologist's arguments, Pellechia saidthe word change was not made for legal reasons.

``The driving engine behind this had nothing to do with legalities.It was a theological decision,'' he said, which was made to reflect thespiritual reality that a Witness who accepts a transfusion no longeraccepts one of the basic tenets of the faith.

Pellechia acknowledged the policy change could have legalramifications, but said he had no idea what they might be, adding theywould be different in different countries.

The new wording, Pellechia said, means that Witnesses who accept ablood transfusion, and do not later regret the action will have``disassociated'' themselves from the fellowship.

As a result, they will not be allowed to speak during worship at aJehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall, as their church buildings are called.They will also not be permitted to present themselves as Witnesses.

That is essentially the same thing that happens when a Witness isdisfellowshipped, said Pellechia. ``The result is the same: They're nolonger looked upon as Jehovah's Witnesses.''

In the past two decades, Botting said many Jehovah's Witnesses andtheir children have died after refusing to accept blood transfusions.

Ex-Witnesses have also claimed in court in Canada that beingdisfellowshipped led to their being shunned by their families and theloss of their livelihoods and access to spiritual paradise.

But Pellechia said Jehovah's Witnesses don't teach that marriedcouples, for example, should split up when a partner isdisfellowshipped. The couple should, however, be aware, that ``theirspiritual ties have been severed'' and they are ``no longer spiritualbrothers and sisters.''