The Presbyterian Church (USA) narrowly voted July 2 to maintain its sexuality standards for church officers, a significant defeat for gays and lesbians who want to serve as pastors and elders.

Delegates to the church's General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia, decided by just four votes — 259-255 — to keep intact a 1978 policy that prohibits "unrepentant homosexual practice" among church officers in the 2.5 million-member church.

The language, which was later upheld as "authoritative" by the church's 1993 assembly, also says it is unconstitutional to ordain "self-affirming, practicing and unrepentant homosexuals."

Rescinding the so-called "authoritative interpretation" from 1978 was a necessary first step for groups wanting to dismantle a constitutional provision adopted in 1997 that mandates "fidelity within the covenant of marriage … or chastity in singleness" for clergy.

The "fidelity and chastity" language has already survived two attempts to overturn it. The church's highest court has said both provisions would need to be removed in order to clear the way for gay Presbyterians to be ordained.

Supporters of the current law said removing it would make it impossible for the church to overcome its deep divisions on human sexuality.

"It will be seen by many in our church as a battle half-lost and a battle half-won," said former Moderator David Dobler. "And the swords will be unsheathed again, and the opportunity to find that more excellent way will be lost."

Friday's voting keeps all current standards intact and essentially maintains the status quo until the church meets again in 2006 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Delegates said removing the law would complicate the work of a 20-member blue ribbon task force that is examining ...

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