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This weekend, an Episcopal diocese in central California is likely to become the first in the country to formally cut ties with the National Episcopal Church. Conservative leaders in the San Joaquin Valley say the national church has abandoned its faith by ordaining gays and supporting same-sex unions.

From member station KQED, Sasha Kohka reports.

SASHA KOHKA: Some 50 individual parishes around the country have taken steps to leave the Episcopal Church, but San Joaquin would be the first entire diocese to split. And that seems likely because church leaders here have already taken a preliminary vote to break away. By church law, they have to finalize that decision with a second vote in their convention this weekend.

Father CARLOS RAINES (St. James Episcopal Cathedral, Fresno County): Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning.

KOHKA: Here in Fresno's St. James Episcopal Cathedral, where the vote will be held, Father Carlos Raines leads a morning prayer. He says he feels compelled to leave the Episcopal Church even though the stakes are high.

The national church has warned it will discipline the bishop here and sue to claim church property if the diocese decides to separate.

Father RAINES: We may well pay with our pensions. It may be, before it's all over, we'll pay with our properties. And we're really having to ask the question: Are the properties more important than what we feel is the necessity to remain loyal to the teachings of Jesus?

KOHKA: Courts have mostly ruled against local churches in property disputes, but they haven't yet considered what happens when a whole diocese decides to leave.

Episcopal bishops met this fall to try and ease international pressure from more orthodox churches. They agreed to show restraint in consecrating openly gay bishops and said they wouldn't authorize any official rights to bless same-sex couples.

But that didn't go far enough, says Father Raines.

Father RAINES: That's not the kind of heart change that we're looking for. That isn't what repentance looks like, and so it didn't go very far.

KOHKA: Some parishes here have launched a Web site opposing the split. Father Keith Axesburg(ph) is part of the group called Remain Episcopal.

Father KEITH AXESBURG (Remain Episcopal): Christ's most important prayer, beyond the Lord's Prayer, was his prayer in John 17, praying that we would be one, like He and the Father are one; to join together and to recognize that we're going to have some heated discussions down the road. But that's part of life. But let's stay together and keep talking.

KOHKA: But this is more than a family feud, says Kevin Eckstrom. He's editor of Religion News Service in Washington.

Mr. KEVIN ECKSTROM (Editor, Religion News Service): No one's ever done this before. San Joaquin has a front row seat to a very significant battle in the life of American churches. A lot of churches tried to study this to death. They tried to say, well, we'll come back to it later. But the Episcopal Church, for better or worse, has actually said, okay, we're going to do it.

KOHKA: But that means the church has itself up for a protracted battle with dissenting parishes. Eckstrom says other dioceses are waiting to see how San Joaquin votes this weekend.

Mr. ECKSTROM: Because they know it's going to be messy and it's going to be expensive and it's going to be ugly.

KOHKA: Three other dioceses in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Texas have started the process of separating from the national church, but they haven't yet held a final vote.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Kohka in Fresno.

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