After three decades of controversy and three prior votes on the matter, Presbyterians are again wrestling with a question that has polarized Protestant denominations nationwide: Should ministers in same-sex relationships be allowed to serve?
Similar to the contentious battle over Proposition 8, a November ballot measure that outlawed same-sex marriage in California, the vote so far in the 2 million-member Presbyterian USA denomination is closer than ever.
"We're all God's children, and we each have gifts," said the Rev. Laura Krauss, co-pastor of St. Luke's Presbyterian Church in Rolling Hills Estates, who supports gay clergy. "I have experienced the leadership and faithfulness of individual gay and lesbian people firsthand, and that allows us to open up our table."
If Presbyterians vote in favor of the amendment to its Book of Order, a constitution of sorts that dictates church policy, individual congregations would be able to decide for themselves if gay clergy can serve when they are not celibate.
Twice the denomination has voted on similar measures. Twice members have opted to keep the status quo, which allows only married ministers to have sexual relations.
Members also voted on the issue in 1997, when they decided to add a provision specifying that unmarried clergy were to remain chaste, including those who are gay.
"No one quarrels over anyone who is celibate and seeks ordination," said the Rev. Sue Fisher, an El Segundo minister who has been actively involved in this issue. "The church struggles with how to respond to members who are gay or lesbian and in a committed, monogamous same-sex relationship."
So far, 114 presbyteries, or regional groups of churches, have voted. The majority of them, 73, have decided against the measure to allow gay clergy, known as "Amendment B."
However, 19 of the presbyteries who voted against measures favorable to gay clergy in the past supported full inclusion this time. And, some of the more liberal areas of the country have yet to make their decision.
The Presbytery of the Pacific, which includes the South Bay and much of Los Angeles, votes on May 12. Most agree the decision will be close; the last local election on this matter was decided by just one vote.
"This is a real issue when you say to people, `What do you think?"' said the Rev. Clayton Cobb, pastor of St. Peters-by-the-Sea Presbyterian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes. "The question, really, is can we trust each other enough to have this conversation? Can we trust God enough?"
Leaders of the two dozen or so Presbyterian USA churches in the South Bay agree that this issue is tough to reconcile and difficult to speak about publicly because of the strong opinions on both sides.
"I think we're in for harder days on this subject," said the Rev. Mark Nazarian, pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Redondo Beach. "The church overall is at a crisis point."
Nazarian said he will likely vote against the amendment. The Bible, he said, is clear on this issue: Marriage is designed to be between a man and a woman.
"Lovingly, caringly, the Bible leads us to this view," he said. "We need to uphold that standard."
Nazarian fears that if the measure passes, a schism may occur similar to what has happened in other Christian denominations. Hundreds of churches left the Episcopal Church after that body allowed the ordination of a gay bishop in 2004; Methodists and Lutherans have also had contentious debates and defections over the subject.
The Presbyterian governing system works similar to the United States government: delegates from each church, typically the pastor and a lay person, cast votes according to their conscience. Members can vote however they chose, but they try to reflect the feelings of the congregation.
Based on his interpretation of scriptural references to homosexuality, Cobb said he is leaning toward voting in favor of the amendment.
"I feel this very strongly as a pastoral issue," he said.
Fisher noted that the Presbyterian church has argued internally before over scriptural interpretation regarding other issues, such as the ordination of women.
"Just as new insights in biblical interpretation arose over the ordination of women," she said, "so have new biblical insights arisen about homosexual relationships."