A national meeting of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (search) rejected a proposal Friday that would have allowed gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy under certain conditions.

The measure would have affirmed the church ban on ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians, but would have allowed bishops and church districts called synods to seek an exception for a particular candidate — if that person was in a long-term relationship and met other restrictions.

Delegates voted against the measure 503-490. Even if it had won a simple majority of votes, that wouldn't have been enough; the proposal needed a two-thirds majority to pass.

Earlier in the day, delegates voted 851-127 to keep the church unified despite serious differences over homosexuality. They also rebuffed what many saw as an attempt to push the denomination toward approval of blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.

All the proposals — the product of three years' work by a special church task force — were meant as a compromise that would satisfy both those who support gay clergy and those who regard gay sex as sinful. However, the measures drew immediate opposition from Lutherans on opposing sides of the debate.

Conservatives said the ordination proposal would have effectively overturned prohibitions against non-celibate gays in the Lutheran ministry and advocates for gays weren't satisfied, either. They said the measure would have created a second-class roster for homosexual clergy in the church.

In a news conference immediately after the vote, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson (search) said he hoped gays and lesbians did not take the vote as a sign they were not welcome in the 4.9 million-member church. "They are. We have said that publicly and clearly," he said.

New Jersey Synod Bishop Roy Riley, president of the ELCA's Council of Bishops (search), said the vote was a good indicator of how the entire church was thinking. "This church is not ready to make major changes in its ordination practices," Riley said. "That was the crux, really."

Lutheran gay advocates were angered. A coalition called Goodsoil accused the church of "sacrificing (gays) on the altar of a false and ephemeral sense of unity."

As debate on gay ordination began Friday afternoon, about 100 gay advocates wearing rainbow sashes walked silently to the front of the hall, stood before the stage where Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson was overseeing the meeting and turned to face the delegates.

They stood quietly and did not move, even though Hanson politely asked them to disperse several times. After some discussion, the delegates decided to proceed, and the protesters stayed in place as the debate continued. They remained standing even after the voting ended.

During the debate, several delegates who believe the Bible condemns gay sex compared homosexuality to alcoholism or drug addiction — something that they should help fellow Christians overcome.

Louis Hesse of the Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod said those arguing for gay ordination had not made a convincing theological or scientific argument on why they were right.

"The case has not been made. I've heard a lot of talk about the Gospel here today and I'm beginning to wonder if I'm in the right church," Hesse said. "A Gospel of full acceptance, accepting everyone the way they are, what does that say about sinfulness?"

But the Rev. G. Scott Cady of the New England Synod said rejecting gays who feel a call to ministry was tantamount to questioning the will of God.

"We have vacant pulpits and altars in congregations all over this country, We have people crying out for pastoral care," Cady said. "The Holy Spirit has said, `All right, here they are. Here they are.' Are we going to now say, `Thanks Holy Spirit, but we prefer something else.'"

Disagreement over what the Bible says about homosexuality has torn at Protestant denominations for years. The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop two years ago, and Anglicans worldwide are now struggling to remain unified — something conservative Lutherans noted in handouts to voters Friday.

Last month, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada voted against allowing local pastors to decide whether to bless same-sex couples. The other major U.S. Lutheran body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is staunchly conservative on gay issues.

The ELCA task force still has a major project ahead: It is scheduled to develop a statement on human sexuality that will be presented to denomination's the 2009 meeting.