The United Church of Christ, which includes 1.3 million members, on Monday became the largest Christian denomination in the U.S. to endorse same-sex marriage.
Approximately 80 percent of the church's General Synod, a biennial meeting of UCC delegates, voted to approve a resolution in support of equal marriage rights for all people, regardless of gender. It marks the first time that one of the nation's mainstream churches has expressed support of marriages for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, according to The Associated Press.
The resolution calls on member churches of the denomination to consider wedding policies "that do not discriminate against couples based on gender," and asks the churches to consider supporting legislation that would grant equal marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples and to work against laws banning gay marriage, according to the AP. The vote is not binding on individual churches, but the move could cause some affiliates to leave the UCC.
Delegates debated the resolution for nearly an hour at Atlanta's Georgia World Conference Center on Monday before casting a majority vote in favor of the resolution. The document was altered by only one amendment, which expressed a "spirit of concern for those who must deal with the resolution's impact in the coming months," according to United Church News, the national news service of the UCC.
After the vote passed, couples of all ages and genders met in tearful embraces to celebrate the victory and listened to Reverend John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, as he addressed the crowd.
"On this July 4th, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ has acted courageously to declare freedom, affirming marriage equality, affirming the civil rights of same-gender couples to have their relationships recognized as marriages by the state, and encouraging our local churches to celebrate and bless those marriages," Thomas said.
Thomas also acknowledged that the issue of gay marriage and marriage equality are "sources of great conflict" not only in society, but in churches as well. The UCC, he said, "is no exception" and "there are clearly great differences among our own members over this." He added that the action by the Synod "does not presume a consensus of opinion among our members of our local churches, which are free and responsible to come to their own mind on this as on any other issue."
However, one prominent supporter of the resolution was Reverend Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta, and a lifelong member of the UCC. Just days before the vote was scheduled to take place, Young issued a statement saying he hoped the General Synod would approve the resolution affirming same-sex marriage equality.
"I'd be disappointed if we did not approve this resolution," he said on Friday. "I think it would be consistent with our historic spirit of fairness and justice, but it also would be consistent with the spirit of grace and mercy as the path to peace and that you judge not that you not be judged."
The United Church of Christ, founded in 1957, has a strong tradition of supporting societal change. The church declared itself to be "open and affirming" of gays and lesbians 20 years ago, and in the 1970s, it became the first major Christian church to ordain an openly gay minister.