Two of the most prestigious United States universities have opened the door to same-sex "commitment ceremonies" in their chapels, placing themselves in the middle of a national debate over whether or not homosexuals should be allowed to marry.
Harvard's decision followed a year of study by its board of ministry, comprising religious clergy from the university and the surrounding community, in response to a handful of inquiries and one student's request to hold a same-sex ceremony in the church in 1994. That request was denied, leading campus gay and lesbian groups to protest.
The board then decided that forbidding same-sex rites was a violation of the university's non-discrimination policy. "Harvard has a policy of non-discrimination based on sexual preference, and they felt that should apply in Memorial Church," said Ann O'Connor, a church spokeswoman.
The pastor, Reverend Peter Gomes, cited another reason for the decision: the biblical definition of a church as "a house of prayer for all people".
Mr Gomes, who is gay, said he was "pleased to be able to extend the hospitality of this university church to all members of the university. Our staff will do all that we can to assist in the development of these services."
Although historically Protestant, the church allows heterosexual marriage ceremonies of all denominations. About 100 marriages are performed there annually. No same-sex couples have held commitment ceremonies since the policy allowing them became effective on July 1. Ms O'Connor said confidentiality provisions prevented her from saying whether any have been planned.
Officials said reaction to the policy has been generally positive.
Stanford has allowed same-sex commitment ceremonies for two years and university officials said five have been held there.
Universities which have refused to allow same-sex ceremonies on campus include Emory University in Atlanta. In June it blocked a gay couple from holding a commitment ceremony. Emory administrators have since asked chaplains to propose a policy on homosexual commitment ceremonies for consideration by the university's trustees this autumn.