INDIANAPOLIS -- The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America votedMonday (Aug. 13) not to overturn a ban on noncelibate gay clergy, optinginstead to launch a churchwide study on homosexuality and craft atimeline for a final decision on the issue.

The decision to keep the policy sparked nonviolent protests,resulting in 50 arrests. Opponents promised to continue to openlychallenge the ban by irregularly ordaining gay pastors.

Delegates voted 596-409 to direct the church to "create a specificplan and timeline" on how to finally decide whether noncelibatehomosexuals should be ordained. The vote reflected an ongoing reluctanceby the nation's fifth-largest Protestant church to make wholesalechanges on gay policy until there is a more visible consensus betweenprogressives and conservatives.

Monday's vote leaves intact an 11-year-old church policy that says,"Ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding areexpected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships."

Bishop Donald J. McCoid of Pittsburgh, chairman of the ELCA'sConference of Bishops, said the decision was an acceptable compromisethat does not presuppose any kind of outcome or final decision.

"We need to get beyond the immediacy and emotionalism of themoment," said McCoid, who added that the church is not united enough tohave made a more definitive stance.

Before they approved the creation of a timeline, delegates rejectedlanguage that would have directed church leaders to take "whatever stepsare necessary" to remove the ban. Some delegates said it would bepremature to change the policy before discussions had even started.

In a separate action, delegates voted 899-115 to approve a"churchwide study on homosexuality" to study such issues as ordinationand blessing same-sex unions. A final report and "action steps" will beissued at the ELCA's 2005 meeting.

Some delegates said the church should look to Jesus, not society orscience, for guidance. "He said nothing about different sexualorientations not being accepted into the church," said lay member Y.T.Chiu Jr. of the Northeastern Ohio Synod. "What would Jesus do? He showedus acceptance again and again."

Others said the church simply isn't ready to welcome gays in thepulpit. Kevin Boatright, board chairman of the ELCA's Division forMinistry, said the current policy "remains a good and useful middleground for this church at this time. It is a practical, pragmaticcompromise. There is no consensus yet."

Throughout the biennial Churchwide Assembly meeting here, members ofan ecumenical pro-gay group, Soulforce, maintained silent vigils outsidethe convention center protesting the ban. They were joined by a smallbut vocal faction of anti-gay activists led by the Rev. Fred Phelps.

Nearly 100 protesters gathered in a rally outside the conventioncenter and 50 people blocked a sidewalk and refused to move. Arresteesfaced a $100 fine and citation for failure to obey an officer. Soulforcefounder Mel White accused the ELCA of perpetuating "spiritual violence."

"They could have been prophets, they could have led the way," saidWhite, who is not a Lutheran. "Studies kill us. They just passed fouryears of study, which is four years of suffering and death."

The move to lift the ban was brought by Anita Hill, a lesbian pastorin St. Paul, Minn., who was ordained last April in open violation ofchurch rules. One bishop who presided at that ordination, Paul Egertsonof Los Angeles, resigned his office because of his participation. He andhis family were among those arrested.

The Rev. Mark Hanson, the St. Paul bishop who put the church thatordained Hill under public censure for her ordination, was elected asthe church's presiding bishop on Saturday. He is widely seen assympathetic to gays and lesbians, although he has vowed to upholdpolicies adopted by the church.

"We have got to find a way to live together at a time when we do notagree on this issue," he said.

Hanson also said he wants to consider the idea of possibly allowinggay clergy to serve in particular churches in a limited manner. "I wantto have that conversation," he said.

Among mainline Protestant churches, only the United Church of Christofficially allows noncelibate gay clergy. In June, the PresbyterianChurch (USA) voted to remove its ban on gay clergy, but that measurestill needs to be approved by a majority of regional governing bodies.