Associated Press, Saturday, July 24, 1999

Baptists delay ouster of churches in gay dispute

By RICHARD N. OSTLING, Associated Press

NEW YORK - Four California congregations that were expelled from the 1.5 million-member American Baptist Churches USA over their liberal stand on homosexuality have taken a step toward a reprieve.

The pastor of one of the congregations, the Rev. Esther Hargis of Berkeley, Calif., said she was officially notified July 16 that several regional subunits had filed formal protests over the expulsion of her congregation at a meeting in Des Moines of the denomination's General Board.

The protests freeze last month's expulsion and sets in motion a process of "adjudication" that has rarely if ever been used in such disputes. Hargis said she assumes that is also the case for the other targeted congregations, located in Oakland, San Jose and San Leandro.

Though the General Board is the denomination's highest policy-making body, the decision by a committee of executives on the denominational staff, or by arbitrators they appoint, will be final.

The Rev. Daniel Weiss, chief executive at American Baptist headquarters in Valley Forge, Pa., was unavailable for comment Wednesday. A denominational spokesman said no official information on the situation would be released until next week.

The four congregations are among 37 in the denomination that belong to the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a caucus that encourages full participation by gays and lesbians.

Despite this vocal liberal wing, American Baptist Churches generally are moderate to conservative. The separate and much larger Southern Baptist Convention is a vigorous supporter of the Christian tradition against same-sex behavior.

Hargis contended that last month's General Board decision was "an historic vote" that violated long-standing commitment to pluralism. In the Baptist tradition, she said, "you don't throw churches out on theological grounds."