South Valley church splits over gay clergy members

TULARE, Calif.

The people at Tulare's First Lutheran Church say they are not homophobic -- and welcome homosexual people to attend their church. They just don't want them as pastors or other positions of authority.

Church member Rich Ortega says the First Lutheran Church still looks pretty similar to when it first opened in 1933. Over the years the congregation has grown and now, he says, has roughly 75-members. This year, the church is taking a big leap of faith. After a landslide vote and much thought and prayer, Ortega says the church has decided to disaffiliate itself with it's national, parent church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church Of America -- or ELCA. The decision was made after an announcement by ELCA during its nationwide assembly in August 2009.

They were going to allow gays and lesbians to be married and also to be in official positions in the church," said Ortega. "And it just ended up being the straw that broke the camel's back.

Ortega says the congregation took two votes on the issue. The first was 74% to disaffiliate, the second, 96%.

"So it wasn't a question of us leaving the church the feeling was the church left us," said Ortega.

Rev. Mark Holmerud, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America said, "I think there was also I think a general sense in the congregation that they hadn't really felt all that connected to either the Sierra Pacific Synod which is the Synod I bishop."

Reverend Mark Holmerud heads up the Sierra Pacific Branch of the ELCA -- which includes the First Lutheran Church. He says the congregation is one of 12 in its district that has severed ties with the ELCA after its decision to allow gay people who are in committed relationships to be clergymen and women.

Rev. Holmerud said, "It's disappointing but certainly it's understandable."

Reverend Holmerud says there have been gay clergy in the ELCA the difference is now the denomination recognizes partnered clergy.

Ortega says their disaffiliation with ELCA does not mean they are not welcoming to gay people. "Some of my best friends are gay people," said Ortega. "We did not feel the position was right to have them as married couples leading the congregation."

The First Lutheran Church has now joined the NALC -- or North American Lutheran Church, which organized after the ELCA made its decision to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to be clergy members.

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