By Jonathan Kaminsky
(Reuters) - A gathering of U.S. Presbyterian Church elders and ministers voted on Thursday to allow their clergy to perform same-sex weddings, in a major reversal for one of the largest mainline Protestant denominations, a church official said.
The move came during a meeting in Detroit, two years after the Church's highest judicial body upheld an ecclesiastical rebuke against a lesbian Presbyterian minister for officiating at same-sex weddings in California.
A number of Christian denominations have grappled in recent years with how to address the wishes of gay and lesbian couples to marry, which is now legal in 19 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
The Presbyterian Church in 2011 removed its prohibitions on openly gay clergy and has a long tradition of baptizing children of same-sex couples.
The vote by a group of Church elders and ministers to allow clergy to solemnize gay weddings was 371 in favor and 238 opposed, said Gradye Parsons, clerk of the Church's General Assembly.
The new rules, which take effect on Saturday, give clergy the choice of whether to preside over same-sex marriages in states where gay nuptials are legally recognized, while providing local church councils discretion over whether to host such ceremonies, Parsons said.
The Church previously only permitted its ministers to bless unions between two men or two women, so long as pastors did not state or imply the couple were actually being married.
The same body in Detroit also voted to change the language of the Church's Book of Order to state: "Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally between a man and a woman." The original passage says: "Marriage is a civil contract between a man and a woman."
That change will require the approval of local church leaders and will take at least a year to come into force, Parsons said.
The Presbyterian denomination had more than 1.7 million active members as of last year.
The Church has lost more than 500,000 members over the past decade, and Church leaders have expressed concern that an endorsement of same-sex marriage could spur an exodus of parishioners who view it as incompatible with biblical teachings.
The Church's General Assembly in July 2012 narrowly voted to reject a proposal to redefine marriage as a union between "two people" rather than as between a man and a woman.
The Presbyterian Church is not the first religious faith to allow its clergy to perform same-sex weddings. Reform and Conservative Jews, Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ allow their clergy to do so, but the United Methodist Church, the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination, forbids it, according to the Pew Research Center.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)