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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As throngs of religious conservatives break from the U.S. Presbyterian Church over the ordination of gay ministers, a small gay-led California parish is staging a schism of its own, saying the church has done too little to accept homosexuality.
The West Hollywood Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles plans to formally join the ranks of the more liberal United Church of Christ on Saturday.
"I can't wait" said the Rev. Dan Smith, a gay pastor who has led the progressive congregation with about 57 members since the 1980s. "It's like being released from an abusive relationship," he told Reuters. "We're ready to be set free."
Clearing a last hurdle for the defection, a regional governing body called the Presbytery of the Pacific voted on Tuesday to let the 99-year-old parish keep property belonging to the parent church when it makes the move. Officials from the parent church could not immediately be reached for comment.
West Hollywood is the first progressive congregation to leave the fold under a so-called "gracious-dismissal" policy church elders devised to avoid contentious lawsuits over congregations seeking to leave the denomination.
Questions about homosexual ordination and same-sex unions have deeply divided the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and its 2 million members, along with other mainstream Protestant denominations in the United States.
The Presbyterian Church formally opened the ranks of its clergy to homosexuals last spring, prompting dozens of congregations around the country to split off to join more conservative denominations or to form a new one of their own.
The church allows its ministers to bless gay unions but prohibits them from performing same-sex marriages.
By contrast, the United Church of Christ allows gay and lesbian weddings and has long welcomed gay clergy.
The Presbyterian Church's highest court recently ordered the Rev. Jane Spahr rebuked for performing state-sanctioned gay and lesbian marriages in California, including the marriage of the Rev. Lisa Bove and Renna Killen.
Bove, Killen and their 10- and 13-year-old daughters belong to the West Hollywood church, and the Rev. Smith officiated at their wedding alongside Spahr. As a lifelong Presbyterian, Bove, 51, said she felt sad about her church's move.
"But I'm not sad for the congregation," she said. "All people deserve the chance to be loved, to know that their parent church body is proud of them and celebrates their gifts.
"The United Church of Christ is proud to have us. Presbyterians are just waking up to tolerate us. We want our gifts celebrated, not just simply tolerated."
West Hollywood elder Neal Williams, a 58-year-old attorney, said the congregation was "not leaving anything."
"We're going to be in the same spot doing the same ministry, but we're not going to be having to look over our shoulders for people taking shots at us, telling the kids, ‘Jesus loves you, but actually Jesus doesn't approve of your parents being together,'" he said.
The Kentucky-based denomination has endured other splits during its history, including schisms over slavery and the ordination of women. Presbyterians led the charge for civil rights in the 1960s, but have lagged far behind on gay rights, Smith said.
"We so deserve to be part of a denomination where we do not have to spend all our time and energy fighting for our rightful place at Christ's table," he said. "We're the first, but we won't be the last progressive church to leave."
A website for the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a conservative advocacy group, lists 35 parishes that had started the process of separating from the denomination between July and March.
Reporting and writing by Ronnie Cohen; editing by Steve Gorman and Todd Eastham