The nation's largest Lutheran denomination passed a measure on Saturday calling on church leaders to "refrain from or demonstrate restraint" in disciplining gay clergy in committed relationships, reported the Chicago Sun Times.
The vote, which passed 538-431, is being viewed as an historic shift on homosexuality within the 4.8-million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The measure was spearheaded by Bishop Paul Landahl of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, who already welcomes gay clergy in committed relationships. However, other bishops across the country have been removed from clergy rosters.
Presiding ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson said the vote does not change the denomination's official policies but simply allows bishops greater discretion.
The Rev. Mark Chavez, leader of Lutheran CORE, a group that opposes non-celibate gays serving as pastors, called the vote "tragic."
"This decision will be an excuse for bishops to disobey ELCA policy," he was quoted as saying. "This decision does not reflect the will of the people, but of bishops and clergy who disregard God's word."
A day earlier, members of the congregation voted down the measure to end the church's celibacy requirement for gay clergy. Voters also called on a task force to prepare a social statement on human sexuality to offer recommendations on current church policies concerning non-celibate gay clergy.