CORPUS CHRISTI, TEX. Texas' 2.7 million Baptists dealt a severe blow to the Southern Baptist Convention on Monday, withdrawing $5 million in funding on the grounds that the denomination is becoming too conservative.
After a brief, civil debate, the 6,000 representatives of the Texas Baptists approved the move as a sizable majority held up voting cards.
The vote is considered a watershed by both sides in the doctrinal conflict that has long roiled the nation's largest Protestant denomination, which has 15.8 million members.
Texas accounts for 17 percent of the members and 13 percent of the money that supports Southern Baptist Convention programs.
Texas Baptists spokesman, Kenneth Camp, said the group was at a crossroads and called the meeting "the decisive turning point for the next century."
In recent years, the Southern Baptists have barred female pastors, declared that wives should "submit graciously" to their husbands, boycotted Disney and issued resolutions condemning homosexuality.
Earlier this month, former President Carter severed ties to the Southern Baptist Convention because of its "increasingly rigid" creed.
On Monday, the Texans voted to cut the amount of money they give to several Southern Baptist seminaries by about 80 percent next year and send the $4 million instead to three moderate campuses in Texas.
Also, the Texans virtually cut off support for the denomination's headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., and its social-issues agency a cut amounting to $1 million. The Texans will still send some $19 million to the denomination, mostly for missionary work in the United States and abroad.
"I am distressed because of the impact this is going to have on the churches of Texas" who "are going to have to make decisions they don't want to make," said the Rev. Claude Thomas of Euless, Tex., who chairs the national body's executive committee.
The Rev. Bill Merrell, a spokesman at Southern Baptist headquarters, said the vote "signals the beginning of the end game anti-Southern Baptists have longed for, planned for and worked for."
"This thrusts upon Southern Baptist lay people and pastors the necessity of deciding whether they will follow those who would lead them to weaken their involvement with the greatest missionary enterprise of our time," Merrell said.
At issue has been how strictly to interpret the Bible.
Leaders of the national denomination insist on the Bible's "inerrancy," or literal accuracy, interpreting Scripture in conservative terms.
"Jesus took his stand against religious authoritarianism, moral judgmentalism and dogmatic fundamentalism," said the Rev. Charles Wade said , executive director of the Texas convention.
The Texas Baptists also decided at the convention to allow full participation for Baptists from outside Texas. Observers say that opens the way for the Texas convention to become a regional body that could rival the national denomination.
The Rev. Phil Lineberger of Sugarland, Tex., said the intent was not to form a new denomination but provide an affiliation for congregations if hardline conservatives control conventions in other states.