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

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

The new rule--which was quietly adopted in a private meeting of the religion's leaders in April and has not yet been fully explained to all the world's Witnesses--stipulates that members who take blood will no longer be actively excommunicated, or ``disfellowshipped,'' by the religion.

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

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

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

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

However, a University of Victoria anthropologist who has written a book about the Jehovah's Witnesses said she believes the religion's leaders changed the wording of their blood-exchange policy to make it easier 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 legal responsibility, in my opinion, to avoid lawsuits,'' said Heather Botting, a former Witness who co-authored the book, ``The Orwellian World of the Jehovah's Witnesses'' (University of Toronto Press).

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

Asked to respond to the anthropologist's arguments, Pellechia said the 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 the spiritual reality that a Witness who accepts a transfusion no longer accepts one of the basic tenets of the faith.

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

The new wording, Pellechia said, means that Witnesses who accept a blood 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 a Jehovah'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 is disfellowshipped, said Pellechia. ``The result is the same: They're no longer looked upon as Jehovah's Witnesses.''

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

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

But Pellechia said Jehovah's Witnesses don't teach that married couples, for example, should split up when a partner is disfellowshipped. The couple should, however, be aware, that ``their spiritual ties have been severed'' and they are ``no longer spiritual brothers and sisters.''

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