Two gay Episcopalian priests who want to get married are spearheading a legal fight by same-sex couples, dividing church leaders and igniting a new religious controversy over homosexuality.

Dennis Winslow, who preaches at St. Peter's at Chelsea, and his partner of 10 years, Mark Lewis, of the Church of Our Savior in Secaucus, N.J., believe they are being treated like "second-class citizens" because the law in New Jersey, where they live, forbids gay marriage. "We have truly worked out a relationship based on love," Winslow, 52, told The Post in an exclusive interview. "But there is a disparity between being a couple in love--a family--and not having the same rights as a heterosexual couple."

Bishops in the Episcopal Church are deeply divided over the couple's decision to join forces with six other couples suing the state of New Jersey for refusing them marriage licenses. While Lewis' Newark Diocese has lent public support, the New York Diocese has refused to comment, and other bishops have called on them to resign from the ministry.

Bishop Jack Iker, of the Fort Worth Diocese in Texas, and Bishop John Howe, of the Central Florida Diocese, said yesterday the pair were violating the church's teachings and their ordination vows. "It's outrageous and it's an embarrassment the Episcopal Church doesn't need," Iker said. "We're seeing a breakdown in the church's authority and discipline and, really, they should leave the church."

But Bishop John Palmer Croneberger, of Newark, said it was time for the church to change its canons that describe marriage as a "solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman." "Sometimes, those two people will be of the same sex--in my view, it makes it no less a marriage," he said.

Winslow and Lewis, who say they received strong support from their congregations although they are fighting for civil rather than religious rights, said their long-held desire to marry had been strengthened by witnessing family legal disputes arising from the Sept. 11 terror attacks. "If I had been in that building and not survived, a whole panoply of decisions and choices, that we would rather have the surviving partner make . . . would have been made by relatives who don't live here with us," Lewis, 42, said. Marriage confers a range of state rights upon couples, such as automatic inheritance and Social Security benefits for widowers.

Winslow and Lewis are the lead plaintiffs in the groundbreaking civil suit, filed in Hudson County Superior Court in Jersey City by a national homosexual rights group, Lambda.

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