The Presbyterian Church approved redefining marriage in the church constitution Tuesday to include a "commitment between two people," becoming the largest US Protestant group to formally recognize gay marriage as Christian and allow same-sex weddings in every congregation.
The new definition was endorsed last year by the church General Assembly, or top legislative body, but required approval from a majority of the denomination's 171 regional districts, or presbyteries. The critical 86th "yes" vote came Tuesday night from the Palisades Presbytery in New Jersey.
After all regional bodies vote and top Presbyterian leaders officially accept the results, the change will take effect on June 21. The denomination has nearly 1.8 million members and about 10,000 congregations.
The Rev. Robin White, a leader of More Light Presbyterians, which advocates for gay acceptance within the church, said many families headed by same-sex couples "have been waiting for decades to enter this space created for their families within their church communities."
So far, 41 presbyteries have rejected the redefinition, which includes a provision that no clergy would be compelled to preside at a gay marriage or host such a ceremony on church property. The vote in one presbytery was tied, according to a tally by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a pro-gay group that works to keep Presbyterians united despite theological differences.
The new wording for the church Book of Order will read, "Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives."
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, said the new definition was "an express repudiation of the Bible" and approved "what God does not bless."
The church had already authorized ordination for people with same-sex partners four years ago, and last year, allowed ministers to preside at gay weddings if local church leaders approved in states where the unions were legally recognized. LaBerge's group has urged Presbyterians to protest by redirecting donations away from the national church until the original marriage definition is restored.
Although several US Protestant denominations have taken significant steps toward recognizing same-sex relationships, only one other major Christian group has endorsed gay marriage as Christian church-wide.
In 2005, the 1.1 million-member United Church of Christ became the first major Protestant denomination to back same-sex marriage, urging its individual congregations to develop wedding policies "that do not discriminate against couples based on gender."
The Episcopal Church, which blazed a trail in 2003 by electing the first openly gay Anglican bishop, Gene Robinson, does not have a formal position on gay marriage, but allows bishops to decide whether their priests can officiate at the ceremonies. Episcopalians will take up gay marriage at a national meeting in June.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which eliminated barriers to gay ordination in 2009, takes a similar approach, allowing some discretion by clergy and congregations to officiate at same-sex ceremonies without formally recognizing same-sex marriage as a denomination.
The United Methodist Church, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., bars "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from ordination and prohibits gay weddings.
The Rev. Brian Ellison, executive director of Covenant Network of Presbyterians, said he recognized "there will be significant disagreement among thoughtful faithful people" about the new marriage definition. "We're very committed to helping the church continue working through this issue," he said.
Between 2011, when the Presbyterian church authorized gay ordination, and 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, 428 of the denomination's churches left for other more conservative denominations or dissolved.