Scores of United Methodist Church ministers in California are putting their careers on the line in an open revolt against religious edicts that forbid them to conduct weddings for gay and lesbian couples.
The pastors could lose their jobs and clerical credentials in the church, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination.
Ministers in Santa Monica, Claremont, Walnut Creek and other cities have already performed ceremonies for gays and lesbians or are planning to do so.
In addition, 82 retired pastors in Northern California signed a resolution in June offering to perform such weddings on behalf of ministers who feel they can't do so themselves.
Pastors have been emboldened by United Methodist assemblies in California that declared their support last month for the state Supreme Court's recent ruling overturning a ban on same-sex marriage.
The regional assemblies -- composed of lay leaders and clergy from California and other states -- also urged pastors and congregations to "welcome, embrace and provide spiritual nurture" for gay couples.
Defenders of gay marriage say they want to compel the 11-million-member denomination to live up to its slogan -- "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors."
"I'm tired of being part of a church that lacks integrity," said the Rev. Janet Gollery McKeithen of Santa Monica's Church in Ocean Park, who plans to conduct weddings for two gay couples in August and September. "I love my church, and I don't want to leave it. But I can't be part of a church that is willing to portray a God that is so hateful. I would rather be forced out."
The two bishops who oversee United Methodist churches in California -- Mary Ann Swenson and Beverly J. Shamana -- have cautioned ministers against taking matters into their own hands.
Conducting same-sex weddings, the bishops have said in correspondence, violates provisions in the Book of Discipline, which lays out the laws and guidelines that govern the church. Under church rules, bishops and others are required to investigate complaints that can be filed by any church member.
"Pastors need to know that there are consequences," said Swenson, of the California-Pacific Annual Conference, which covers Southern California, Hawaii, Guam and Saipan. "We are bound to honor the policy of our denomination."
The turmoil in the Methodist church is occurring in variations across the Protestant landscape, with some religious authorities glimpsing what they believe are the seeds of rifts, perhaps even schisms, in mainline denominations.
But the conflict is having an immediate effect on United Methodists, as pastors in California wage a struggle that many characterize as the civil rights cause of their generation.
At the heart of the dispute is the Book of Discipline. The book calls the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching and says "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
In addition, it excludes "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from the ministry.
But as defenders of gay marriage note, the text also says that "certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons."
This spring, the United Methodist Church's international governing body, the General Conference, reaffirmed the existing language on homosexuality. Then in June, California's two governing bodies approved their resolutions supporting gay weddings.
One measure adopted by Southern California's Methodist leaders recognized "the pastoral need and prophetic authority" of clergy and congregations to make marriage available to all. In a nod to the repercussions, the measure urged "compassion and understanding in any resulting disciplinary actions."
A separate resolution from the Northern California and Nevada contingent commended its retired pastors for offering their marriage services.
When a clergy member asked Bishop Shamana, who oversees Northern California and Nevada, to rule on the retired pastors' resolution, she called it a "commendable gesture" but declared it "void and of no effect."
Shamana, in a ruling released June 21, said regional authorities did not have the power to offer services that the international governing body had found to be "chargeable offenses against the law of the United Methodist Church."
But some members of the clergy remain undaunted. One of the authors of the retired ministers' measure, Don Fado, said he would willingly violate the guidelines on same-sex marriage as a matter of conscience, even if it meant the loss of clerical credentials and financial benefits.
"We are willing to put our professions on the line because this is so central to our ministry," said Fado, 74, retired pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Sacramento. "Any pastor who is called upon to make that decision knows there are 82 of us who are willing to make that stand."
Some conservative United Methodists believe that the debate over church rules ignores a deeper issue -- the Bible's prohibitions against homosexuality. "We have lost any ability to have a biblical discussion on the topic," said the Rev. John McFarland, senior pastor of Fountain Valley United Methodist Church.
Still, with the November election approaching -- featuring a measure to ban same-sex marriage in California -- some ministers are forging ahead with weddings.
The Rev. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett of Claremont United Methodist Church joined a retired deacon from her congregation to co-officiate at the July 5 wedding of two longtime members, Howard Yeager and Bill Charlton.
The wedding was held off site -- at a Claremont complex for retired clergy and missionaries -- to avoid violating the rule against such ceremonies in churches.
Rhodes-Wickett, who led the Lord's Prayer and gave a homily, said she hoped to avoid discipline by stopping short of actually pronouncing the couple married. That action was performed by the retired deacon, who also signed the marriage license.
Rhodes-Wickett said she did not want Yeager and Charlton to leave her church to exchange vows.
"This is my flock," she said, adding that the men have been together 40 years, 22 of them as members of her Claremont congregation. "It's a matter of integrity and a matter of what it is to be a pastoral ministry."