Capping a week of protest and sharp debate, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination, voted 268-251 to ban same sex union ceremonies. The group's 173 presbyteries must now ratify a constitutional amendment that establishes the ban or it will not take effect.On the convention floor, the one-hour debate preceding the ballot was civil but impassioned: "If we bless what God condemns, what kind of Christians are we?" said youth delegate Emily Martin, 18, of Alabama. Supporters were equally adamant: "This church doesn't respect gay and lesbian people because it does not respect their relationships," said Donna Riley, a church member from Princeton, N.J. "They're saying a minister can bless a lesbian's home, a minister can bless a lesbian's poodle, but that minister cannot bless my relationship."The vote, which took place late in the evening on June 30, followed the arrest of 81 protesters from Soulforce, the interdenominational homosexual-rights group headed by Mel White. At the same time as the Soul force gathering, 10 people associated with the controversial pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., held a counterdemonstration, with signs proclaiming THANK GOD FOR AIDS and similar slogans.Jane Spahr, a lesbian and an ordained Presbyterian minister from San Rafael, Calif., said the vote would "make the church more irrelevant to our lives. To say we can't do holy unions—it would be very painful to hear this."According to Joe Rightmyer, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, there's equal pain being felt by those who oppose homosexual behavior as immoral and unbiblical. "I'm battling for the sake of individuals caught in moral confusion," Rightmyer said. "The answer is to address this question with truth and the power of the gospel."But the contentious battle over this question (ending just hours before a municipal clerk in Vermont performed the state's first legal same-sex union) is just a warmup, observers say, for the PCUSA's 2001 meeting in Louisville, Ky. A two-year moratorium on discussing qualifications for ordination will expire at that meeting, and renewed efforts to affirm the ordination of active homosexuals are expected.At the same time, the PCUSA assembly voted to expand aids ministries in local congregations, appropriating $90,000 over the next three years for outreach to people with aids as well as other diseases, including Alzheimer's disease.In other developments, the organization also elected its first Asian-American moderator, Syngman Rhee, on June 24, the 50th anniversary of his flight from North Korea at the outbreak of the Korean War.Rhee, unrelated to the late South Korean president of the same name, is also director of the Asian American Ministry and Mission Center at Union Theological Seminary/Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va.

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