Lutheran bishops could allow gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships to become pastors of congregations under a proposal advanced Monday by a council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (search).

Church policy currently bans gay and lesbian clergy (search) who are involved with partners but allows those who are celibate. The proposal — which would require that the bishop of a synod, or district, seek an exception to the ban for a particular candidate — will be voted on by the church's assembly at its annual meeting in August.

With almost 5 million members, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one of the nation's largest Protestant bodies. Like several other major Protestant denominations, it has wrestled in recent years with issues involving gays and lesbians.

Disappointed gay supporters said the proposal — which the church council offered after three days of meetings at church headquarters in Chicago — might not be approved by the approximately 1,000-member assembly because it is so complicated and filled with conditions.

They also said they don't view the proposal as a step forward because several active ministers already are in committed gay relationships and have not been disciplined by church leaders.

"They're creating a second-class roster, and a complicated process of exceptions which will not serve gay or lesbian people well, and I'm afraid it won't serve the church well," said the Rev. Jeff Johnson, a pastor in Berkeley, Calif., and co-chair of Good Soil (search), a group seeking to change the church's policy.

Conservative groups had hoped for a reaffirmation of current policy, which they got on the issue of blessings of same-gender couples. Using the same wording as a 1993 letter from the church's bishops, the council approved a resolution saying the church does not officially approve of such ceremonies but recognizes the desire of pastors with gay and lesbian members to "explore the best ways to provide pastoral care for all to whom they minister."

Under the policy concerning gay clergy, the bishop of a synod could seek an exception for a clergy candidate from the 65-member Conference of Bishops.

Heterosexual, single Lutheran clergy are expected to remain celibate until they marry, and the gay or lesbian minister would have to provide evidence of "intent to live in a lifelong, committed and faithful same-sex relationship," according to the proposal.

The minister would then head a congregation that had "indicated its openness to" a pastor in such a relationship, according to the proposal.

The Rev. Roy Harrisville III, the executive director of Solid Rock Lutherans (search), a group dedicated "to maintaining the current polices on sexuality within the church," opposed the proposal.

"It opens the door to crossing myriad sexual boundaries that I think should not be crossed," he said. "This strikes at the Christian identity."

The U.S. Episcopal Church (search) has dealt with upheaval and discord since consecrating an openly gay bishop in 2003. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church have also been involved in divisive struggles over sexuality.

The nation's other major Lutheran body, the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (search), is staunchly conservative on gay issues and other matters.