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 before it takes 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?" youth delegate Emily Martin, 18, of Alabama, said. 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 Friday evening June 30, followed the arrest of 81 protesters from Soulforce, the interdenominational homosexual rights group headed by Mel White. The arrested included William P. Thompson, a former moderator and stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which merged with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. in 1983 to form the PCUSA. Thompson said he believed sexual orientation was "received and not chosen" by people. At the same time as the Soulforce gathering, 10 people associated with the controversial pastor Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., held a counter-demonstration, with signs proclaiming "Thank God for AIDS" and similar slogans. Jane Spahr, an ordained Presbyterian and lesbian 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 in the church who wish to remain focused on the traditional teaching of scripture. "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 town clerk in Vermont performed its first same sex union) is just a warm-up, observers say, for the PCUSA's 2001 meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. There, a two-year moratorium on discussing qualifications for ordination will expire. Renewed efforts for the affirmation of the ordination of active homosexuals is expected at that time.At the same time, the PCUSA assembly voted to expand AIDS "care team" ministries in local congregations, appropriating $90,000 over the next three years "to educate, train and empower deacons and interested church members" in organized care teams to provide ministry not just to persons with AIDS but also other "life-challenging" illnesses such as Alzheimer's Disease, according to the group's news service. The organization also elected its first Asian American "moderator," or chief spokesman, Syngman Rhee, on June 24, the 50th anniversary of his flight from North Korea at the outbreak of the Korean War. Rhee, who is not related 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, Virginia.

Presbyweb, a site which has some original reporting in addition to its daily collection of links to news stories, covered the General Assembly in detail. See also mainstream media coverage in The New York Times ( July 2, July 1), Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle.