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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in American issued a decision today on the divisive issue of gay clergy.

Lutherans pastors who are gay are still required to remain celibate. But now, those who break the rule will likely go unpunished.

Chicago Public Radio's Jason DeRose reports.

JASON DEROSE: The 1,100 voting members called on bishops to refrain from taking disciplinary action against clergy in same-sex relationships. They also urge bishops not to take actions against congregations that employ non-celibate gay clergy.

Debate was emotional at times with some members making appeals to church unity, the movement of the Holy Spirit and the Bible.

Timothy Whiteman is a pastor serving in Washington State.

Pastor TIMOTHY WHITEMAN (Central Lutheran Church, Washington): And I'm concerned that the mixed message that we continually give by being a church that claims to be a Bible church and then selectively ignores passages, it just destroys our evangelical integrity.

DEROSE: Today's decisions will only confuse people in the pews, says Mark Chavez with WordAlone, a group wanting more conservative clergy standards.

Pastor MARK CHAVEZ (Director, WordAlone Network): It's clear that this is not only a muddled church-wide assembly but a muddled denomination with, at least, two different gospels being proclaimed.

Ms. EMILY EASTWOOD (Executive Director, Lutherans Concerned): We give thanks to God for this moment in time. And this is the crack in the dam.

DEROSE: Emily Eastwood is executive director of Lutherans Concerned. She says the vote indicates an important change in the church.

Ms. EASTWOOD: They have moved to tolerance, but they have not yet moved to acceptance. A church that accepts GLBT pastors will be the one that will open the door and you come in through the front door, instead of being let down through the ceiling.

DEROSE: One man at the center of the debate is Pastor Bradley Schmeling who lost his clergy credentials because he's gay and in a relationship. Today, Schmeling gave a preview of the sermon he'll deliver tomorrow morning at St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta.

Reverend BRADLEY SCHMELING (Pastor, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America): The text that's appointed for tomorrow is - have no fear, little flock. Our little flock can move ahead and not be afraid that there's going to be further discipline.

DEROSE: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America plans a more complete statement on sexuality two years from now.

For NPR News, I'm Jason DeRose in Chicago.

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