DALLAS The largest American Lutheran denomination cleared the way on Friday to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve in ministry, ending a policy that had opened leadership posts to them only if they remained celibate.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also encouraged its congregations to find ways to support or recognize members in "accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."
But it did not give official sanction to gay marriage or approve any rites for such ceremonies.
Still, the stance taken by the 4.6-million-member church is one of the most liberal by any U.S. denomination on matters of sexual orientation, which are among the most divisive political and religious issues in America today.
The church adopted the resolution at its biennial meeting in Minneapolis.
"It is about people in committed, same-gender relationships," said John Brooks, the director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's news service and a spokesman for the church.
Previously gays and lesbians had been barred from service unless they stayed celibate.
The resolution, approved by a vote of 559 to 441, said the church was committed to finding ways to allow people in "accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church."
The measure applies to clergy as well as professional lay leaders.
The assembly still has to approve procedural changes to allow the resolution to go forward. Brooks said he expected the new policy to be in place by 2010.
The move follows the lifting last month of a de facto ban by the U.S. Episcopal Church on the consecration of gay bishops, setting the stage for wider conflict in the global Anglican Communion.
The Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, is also in the process of developing official rites or liturgies to bless same-sex unions.
All of this is unfolding against the backdrop of America's wider debate over issues such as gay marriage, child adoption by same-sex parents and the status of homosexuals in the military. Gay marriage has been approved in six U.S. states but it is being challenged in Maine.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the United Church of Christ is alone among major U.S. Christian denominations in officially recognizing gay marriage.
Polls consistently show gays enjoying growing acceptance in American society, a fact readily visible in popular culture. But fast-growing faiths in the United States such as many evangelical Protestant churches and the Mormon church regard homosexual relations as sinful and proscribed by scripture.
Ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage at the state level have been a regular feature in recent U.S. election cycles and commentators say they have helped boost turnout among the Republican Party's conservative Christian base.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)