ATLANTA (AP) -- Two years after the Georgia Baptist Convention expelled two churches because of their acceptance of homosexuals, the Atlanta Baptist Association has reopened the controversy by voting to keep the churches in the fold.
The Atlanta association voted 253-164 not to expel Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland churches.
''This is really the first kind of Southern Baptist official body that has taken a vote and said, 'No, we're not going to exclude churches that affirm gays and lesbians,''' said David Key, head of Baptist studies at Emory University.
Southern Baptist leaders say that because of the vote, more conservative churches now may choose to withdraw from the Atlanta Baptist Association. The Rev. Bobby Atkins of the 7,000-member Rehoboth Baptist Church said he will bring the matter up before the church's leadership.
''If this is the way the Atlanta Baptist Association wants to deal with this, what I think might happen ... is that there will be several churches that will say we can no longer be a part of that,'' Atkins said.
Southern Baptist Convention president James Merritt, whose First Baptist Church of Snellville is in a neighboring association, said he was ''extremely disappointed'' in the decision of the Atlanta association.
Some supporters of the two expelled churches said their votes did not indicate acceptance of homosexuality but rather a belief that Baptist churches should have congregational autonomy.
''Each church must discern who God is calling them to be,'' Oakhurst pastor the Rev. Lanny Peters argued at Tuesday's meeting.
The Rev. Tim Shirley, pastor at Virginia-Highland, said he believed that ''by and large, homosexuality is a completely natural orientation and not a chosen behavior or lifestyle.''
But Shirley said the association did not have to agree in order to retain the two churches.
''Blessing does not require agreement. It does require understanding,'' Shirley said.
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