The Presbyterian Church's highest court ruled Wednesday that local congregations have the right to conduct religious ceremonies celebrating gay unions that stop short of marriage.
The decision by the 16-member court is binding unless the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) overrides it.
The case, one of three on gay issues argued last week before the tribunal, stemmed from a same-sex ceremony performed in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. The Northeast regional church court ruled that ceremonies of ``holy union'' for same-sex couples may be conducted if it is made clear they are not marriages.
The high court agreed, though it instructed regional church bodies to make a clearer distinction between marriages and ``blessing services.''
A second case before the high court involved a homosexual candidate for the ministry who said he did not intend to remain celibate, even though church rules require clergy to observe either ``fidelity in marriage'' or ``chastity in singleness.''
In that case, the Northeast regional court decided that he could continue as a candidate, and that his ``manner of life'' could be evaluated prior to ordination.
Again, the high church concurred Wednesday. It said the denomination's standards of fidelity and chastity are to be applied at the point that a person is considered for ordination, not during candidacy.
Freda Gardner and Clifton Kirkpatrick, the two national leaders of the 2.6 million-member denomination headquartered in Louisville, Ky., said in a pastoral letter Wednesday that the court's decisions reaffirm church policy of disallowing gay marriages and the ordination of sexually active gays.
Homosexual issues will surface again when the General Assembly meets in Long Beach, Calif., from June 24 to July 1. Among legislation to be considered: a proposal to ban same-sex marriage.