When Lifestyles and Church Styles Don't Mix

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Homosexuals, having in recent time made great strides with several religious denominations — including the ordination of gay priests — this week ran up against a stone wall in their quest for total acceptance. Tuesday, the Georgia branch of the Southern Baptists expelled two churches that allow gays in leadership positions, including one that permitted a gay "marriage." A day later the Nebraska branch of the United Methodist Church voted to defrock Jimmy Creech, a pastor who's performed 13 gay marriages, sometimes known as "commitment ceremonies."

While similar in outcome, the two decisions highlight considerable denominational differences over the issue. The Southern Baptist ouster went virtually uncontested, with over 80 percent of the Georgia Baptist Convention voting for the first church expulsions in its 177-year history. The minister of one of the expelled congregations told reporters she was "stunned" over the lack of dialogue preceding the vote. In Nebraska, however, there was a healthy debate both inside and outside the church in which the hearings took place. The Rev. Mel White, a California-based gay-rights activist, imported 100 protesters, who faced off outside the church with a flock led by peripatetic Kansas-based Baptist minister Fred Phelps, who's gaining a reputation as the nation's most vociferous anti-gay crusader. Inside, Creech told a panel of priests that he intentionally violated church law because it was discriminatory.

"This is a big deal for the Methodists," says TIME religion writer David Van Biema. "This is a muddy area for them. They've decided they don't want gay unions performed in their churches, but that decision hasn't been unanimously popular among Methodist ministers." As the gay-rights movement prepares to enter its second century, it is reminded that an accord with every religious institution may well not be over when the next century rolls around.