The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, amended its constitution Tuesday to give the denomination the power to oust congregations that condone homosexuality.
Southern Baptist officials called the action unprecedented for the conservative, 148-year-old denomination. "It's the first (amendment) to deal with a condition of membership based on behavior," said Herb Hollinger, vice president for convention news.
Until now, membership was based on congregations' willingness to contribute financially to the denomination and to adhere to a brief declaration of religious doctrine, the Baptist Faith and Message Statement. The statement, written in 1963, lays out Baptist beliefs about God, the Bible, evangelism and various church practices. It does not mention homosexuality.
The 15.2-million-member denomination includes about 37,000 congregations.
The amendment, which was approved on the first day of the Southern Baptists' annual three-day convention, states that churches "which act to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior" will not be "in cooperation with the convention," the Southern Baptist term for membership.
The amendment was drawn up a year ago and approved by the 1992 convention (the first step in the two-stage process of amending the denomination's constitution) in response to actions by two North Carolina churches. Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh blessed a union of two gay men, while Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill ordained an openly gay man as a minister.
In other business, the 16,872 messengers at the convention unanimously voted to re-elect the Rev. Ed Young of Houston to a one-year term as Southern Baptist president.