In an action that would consolidate an unabashed, decade-long move to the right, the Southern Baptist Convention will vote today on a resolution that would prohibit women from serving as pastors.
Southern Baptists, holding a two-day annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., are expected to overwhelmingly approve the revision to the Baptist Faith and Message, the statement of faith for the nation's largest Protestant denomination. A woman could still be ordained a minister but could not lead a church as a pastor.
"This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the Southern Baptist Convention," said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. "Anyone who is surprised is simply out of touch with where Southern Baptists have been for a very long time."
The change would continue the ideological shift for the 16 million-member group, which has been guided by conservative fundamentalists for about the past decade.
Other proposed revisions to the Faith and Message at this convention include statements that the Bible is "totally true" and declarations that oppose homosexuality and denounce racism.
But the move to prohibit women from serving as pastors is drawing the most attention. Although the position might not be politically correct, Southern Baptist officials defend it without apology.
"There is a pattern in the Old Testament and the New Testament of men and women related to God, but related differently before God," said Mohler, who served on the committee that drafted the proposed revision.
"Men and women are both made in the image of God and both are gifted for ministry, but the office of pastor is limited to men."
In addition to this general pattern, Southern Baptists say they base their position specifically on a passage from 1 Timothy that states, "I will permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent."
About 1,600 women have been ordained as Southern Baptist ministers since the Rev. Addie Davis was ordained in August 1964 in Durham, N.C., said sociologist Sarah Frances Anders, who tracks such trends.
About 1,225 ordained women are active, about a quarter of them serving as chaplains in hospitals, prisons and the military. About 100 women have served as pastor of Southern Baptist congregations since the 1960s.
The proposed revision against woman pastors is not binding on local congregations, which retain autonomy in their governance. But it could affect hiring decisions at Southern Baptist seminaries and other denominational institutions, and therefore carries significant influence.
"What's happening here is after about 21 years, they are now trying to put in the statement of faith a lot of what they were trying to pass on a year-by-year basis," said the Rev. David Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.
Key called the proposed revisions "a radical departure" from the intent of the Faith and Message, which was intended to be a broad-based statement of beliefs.
Although there will likely be little opposition to the proposed revision in the convention hall, it is opposed by more moderate Baptist groups, some of which were affiliated with the Southern Baptists in the past but parted company after its hard turn to the right.
"It is possible to interpret Scripture to mandate that women can't be pastors, but that's not the only way to interpret Scripture," said the Rev. Daniel Vestal, executive director of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which represents about 1,800 theologically moderate Baptist churches.
"If you use that method ... then to be consistent, you ought also to say that women ought to cover their heads in worship and slaves ought to remain subservient to their masters.
"It's taking issues from first-century culture not intended to be normative for the church for all future generations and making them normative."
Some believe the vote will prompt many departures from the Southern Baptists.
"I think you'll see a lot of women leaving," said the Rev. Martha Phillips, interim pastor of the Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Arlington, Va., where Vice President Al Gore is a member. "For me it's the last straw."
But Anders, the sociologist, believes the change in policy will have no effect.
"These young women, they feel called," she said. "They understand Baptist doctrine enough to know it's sacred what goes on between you and the Lord. And even the church can't tell you."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.