May 11, 2011 ( – The U.S. Presbyterian Church is set to begin ordaining openly homosexual clergy, crossing the final procedural hurdle this week after a decades-long battle.

The denomination has removed a requirement from its constitution that those who are to be ordained remain in “fidelity in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” The phrase is replaced by a requirement that clergy “joyfully [submit] to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

The denomination’s General Assembly, its governing body, had approved the change in July, but it first needed to be ratified by a majority of its 173 regional organizations, also called presbyteries.

A Minnesota presbytery secured the change in a vote late Tuesday, becoming the 87th to support it.  They were followed shortly by another presbytery in Los Angeles.  The Los Angeles Times reports that 19 presbyteries changed their votes since it was considered last in 2008-09.

According to the denomination’s procedures, local presbyteries will be allowed to decide for themselves whether they will ordain homosexuals.

The Presbyterian Church becomes the fourth mainline Protestant church to approve ordination of homosexual clergy after the Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutherans, and the United Church of Christ.

The July decision in the General Assembly, coming in a vote of 373 to 323, was the fourth time the body had voted to allow the ordination of homosexuals.  Each of the previous times it had been rejected by local presbyteries.

The move was decried Wednesday in a statement from the Presbyterian Renewal Network, signed by a dozen Presbyterian leaders.

The leaders call the Presbyterian Church to repent for the vote, which they emphasize “does not change the will of God expressed in Scripture.”  They say the move “conforms to the desires of the flesh rather than yielding to and upholding the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, by which she is conformed to Christ.”

The words removed from the constitution, they added, “reflect the clear teaching of Scripture from beginning to end” and are “affirmed also by the Church throughout history and around the world.”

The U.S. Presbyterian Church has permitted the blessing of same-sex couples since 2000, and has endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples since 2004.

They have shrunk rapidly in the last four decades, from about 4.25 million in 1965 to approximately 2.1 million members.