(Detroit Free Press) -- One of the largest and most influential Protestant groups in the U.S. voted Thursday in Detroit to approve same-sex marriages, bringing cheers from advocates who called it an historic moment.
Members of Presbyterian Church USA, the largest Presbyterian denomination in the nation, voted by 61% to allow pastors to perform same-sex marriages in their churches. They also voted by 71% to change the definition of marriage from one man and one woman to two people of any gender. The first proposal goes into immediate effect Saturday after the close of the convention; the second proposal still has to gain majority approval from local branches before it would take effect.
"They deserve to have the same rights," the Rev. Sharon Mook, pastor of Fort Street Presbyterian Church in Detroit, said of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people. "People are born who are not heterosexual. ... God's love is for all of God's children."
The Rev. Robin White, a Presbyterian minister from West Virginia who is married to another woman, said after Thursday's votes, "It's a day of celebration. I'm proud to be a Presbyterian today."
White was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1986 but had to hide that she is a lesbian for decades. And despite being recently married, she was unable to do so in her own church.
Now, she and others can.
Presbyterians number about 1.8 million but have an influence beyond their numbers. Eight U.S. presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower, were Presbyterians, the second-most-popular denomination among presidents.
Thursday's decision could reverberate beyond their denomination, influencing other Christian groups to allow same-sex marriages. Most other Christian denominations do not allow same-sex marriages. In 2009, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. allowed ministers discretion in performing same-sex marriages, according to Pew Research Center.
White and other Presbyterians cried after the votes, which were cast at Cobo Center.
"At first, I felt a little numb," White said. "Within a few moments, I wept."
Nathan Sobers, a ruling elder in a Presbyterian church in Seattle, who is gay, also started crying.
"I was so filled with joy," he said.
At the same time, conservatives are concerned the move could divide the church and lead to further membership declines. Since 1992, Presbyterian Church USA has lost more than a million members, declining 37% from 2.78 million to 1.76 million last year. Some conservative congregations have broken away, and more could leave after Thursday's vote.
During the debate that took place before the vote, Presbyterian missionaries, some foreign Presbyterians, and conservatives expressed concern about the fallout of approving same-sex marriage.
The director of world Presbyterian missions said approving same-sex marriage could "divide us from some of our global mission partners."
A Presbyterian man from Pennsylvania said people who are backing gay marriage are acting as "agents of the state," not as "ambassadors of Christ."
And a Presbyterian woman from North Carolina worried that changing the definition of marriage means "we will lose ... churches."
Presbyterians from the Arab world and Africa also expressed concern, given that many in the areas where they work don't approve of homosexuality.
The moderator of the assembly, Heath Rada, acknowledged the tensions within the church, saying that some will feel "anger, wrath, pain" over approval of same-sex marriage, while others will be "feeling blessed."
Before the votes were cast, he urged members not to cheer or be emotional, but to pray together, which they did.
But later, applause and cheers broke out across the floor.
Scott Miller, the pastor of the Drayton Avenue Presbyterian Church in Ferndale, said he believes the vote is the "first step in the right direction."
"I think there are many in the church who feel this is a matter of justice and that we believe God calls us to be a people who are committed to justice and seeing justice served in the world," Miller said. "The one point I think is worth emphasizing is that by no means is it forcing clergy to do something against their conscience. It simply allows present clergies who live in states where same-sex marriage is legal, the freedom to perform a marriage ceremony."
LGBT advocates said they were amazed by the high percentage who voted for both proposals. Two years ago, at the last Presbyterian gathering in Pittsburgh, a proposal to allow same-sex marriage was defeated 52%-48%. Since then, the cultural landscape has changed, with 19 states now allowing same-gender marriage.
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