The U.S. Episcopal Church on Tuesday approved a liturgy for clergy to use in blessing same-sex unions, including gay marriages in states where they are legal, becoming the largest U.S. religious denomination to approve such a ritual.
Delegates to its triennial convention voted 171-50 to approve the liturgy, titled "the Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant." Episcopal bishops had voted overwhelmingly on Monday in favor of the text.
The U.S. Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, is the 14th largest U.S. religious denomination, with about 2 million members, according to the National Council of Churches.
The proposed blessing will be introduced in early December and will be evaluated over the next three years, according to a church spokeswoman, Nancy Davidge.
The resolution does not mention the word "marriage" and it does not alter the church's standard liturgy for a marriage between a man and a woman, but offers an alternative liturgy for blessing same-sex couples.
The measure also gives bishops of the church discretion in the use of the liturgy and says no one should be punished for choosing not to use it.
Reverend Bonnie Perry of Chicago, who supports marriage between same-sex couples, said she was pleased by the decision. "For me it is a window on the Promised Land. It's not the Promised Land," she said. "The most important part of a marriage is the blessing."
But Steven Horst of Connecticut spoke in opposition, saying the resolution was the wrong way to proceed. Some Episcopalians will say the church endorsed gay marriage even though the word marriage is not mentioned, he said.
The Episcopal Church is the largest religious denomination to approve such blessings. The United Church of Christ, the 24th-ranked denomination in the United States with about a million members, voted in 2005 to recognize same-sex unions.
Two other major Protestant denominations, United Methodists and Presbyterians, rejected gay rights resolutions at their conferences earlier this year.
United Methodists in May voted down a resolution that would have altered a doctrine that said homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Presbyterians last week narrowly rejected a proposal to redefine marriage as a union between two persons rather than between a man and woman.
But gay rights advocates have scored a string of victories in the United States this year.
President Barack Obama in May announced his support for same-sex marriage.
The legislatures of three states have approved same-sex marriage this year - New Jersey, Maryland and Washington. Governor Chris Christie vetoed the New Jersey law, but governors of the other two states signed the laws. Opponents in Maryland and Washington are pushing for the issue to be put on the ballot in November.
(Writing by Greg McCune; editing by Mohammad Zargham)