SALT LAKE CITY >> Episcopalians are set to vote Wednesday on allowing religious weddings for same-sex couples, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.
In 2003, the denomination made the trailblazing move of electing the first openly gay Episcopal bishop. Since then, many dioceses have allowed their priests to perform civil same-sex weddings.
Still, the church hadn’t changed its own laws on marriage.
The vote on gay marriage is expected around midday in Salt Lake City at the denomination’s national assembly.
The proposal would eliminate gender-specific language from church laws on marriage so religious weddings can also be performed for same-sex couples. Clergy could decline to perform the ceremonies. Right now, each bishop decides whether his or her priests may conduct gay marriages.
Among mainline Protestant groups, only the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) allow same-sex weddings in all their congregations. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allows individual congregations to decide on the ceremonies, and the United Methodist Church bars gay marriage.
On the eve of the U.S. vote, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, released a statement expressing deep concern about the potential impact of changing the definition of marriage in Episcopal church law.
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. body of the Anglican Communion, an 80 million-member global fellowship of churches. Ties among Anglicans have been strained since Episcopalians in 2003 elected Bishop Gene Robinson, who lived openly with his male partner, to lead the Diocese of New Hampshire. Welby has been struggling to keep good relations among the churches.
Robinson, now retired, said he is breathless about how quickly the gay rights movement has progressed since he was getting daily death threats and forced to wear a bulletproof vest to his consecration 12 years ago.
Robinson said there was a carnival-like mood throughout the Episcopal Church convention last week after the Supreme Court ruling. He said all religions will be under more pressure now to get in lockstep with society, driven by their own gay and lesbian parishioners who will want to be given permission to marry within their faiths.
"Conservative churches are hemorrhaging young people because young people today have gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender friends. They know the things they are being told by their conservative churches are just simply wrong," Robinson said. "In increasing numbers, they do not want to belong to a church that condemns their friends that they know to be wonderful people."
After the Supreme Court ruling last week, many theologically conservative churches, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Mormon Church, renewed their opposition to gay marriage and said they will not host them in their churches.
The Episcopal Church has already made history during the convention, electing its first African-American presiding bishop. On Saturday, Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina was elected in a landslide.
Curry supports gay rights, speaking against North Carolina’s 2012 constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage, which is now invalid, and allowing same-sex church weddings in the North Carolina diocese. In a news conference after his election Saturday, Curry said the Supreme Court "affirmed the authenticity of love" by legalizing gay marriage nationwide.
McCombs reported from Salt Lake City. AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll reported from New York.