updated 11/14/2006 9:01:00 PM ET 2006-11-15T02:01:00

The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina voted Tuesday to cut ties with congregations that affirm or approve of homosexuality, formally adopting a rigid anti-gay policy that allows the group to investigate whether member churches are gay-friendly.

The policy adopted by the North Carolina convention, which includes more than 4,000 member churches and 1.2 million members, is even stricter than that of the national Southern Baptist Convention, according to a more liberal Baptist organization.

"It's not something that we wanted to do, but homosexuality is the only sin that has its own advocacy group," convention spokesman Norman Jameson said. "Those advocacy groups are pushing us into this stance. Other denominations that waffle and waver on the issue year after year are getting torn apart."

The vote changes the convention's long-standing laws, which previously only required its members to support the convention through cooperation and financial contributions. Now any churches that "knowingly act to affirm, approve, endorse, promote, support or bless homosexual behavior" will be barred from membership.

"This action does not mean that you should avoid ministry to the homosexual community," said convention executive director Milton Hollifield Jr. "Even though we believe that homosexuality is wrong, we still love and engage those in this lifestyle."

Sixteen churches in North Carolina will come under immediate scrutiny under the policy, Jameson said. Those churches are associated with the Alliance of Baptists, a Washington D.C.-based group that welcomes gays as equal members.

The Alliance of Baptists said the new policy is stronger than a similar policy adopted by the Nashville, Tenn.-based Southern Baptist Convention — the nation's largest Protestant body. The Southern Baptists changed their constitution in 1993 to say that "churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior" are not eligible for membership.

"But the Southern Baptist Convention didn't go around trying to meddle with and investigate churches," said Jeanette Holt, associate director for The Alliance of Baptists. "This new policy sounds to me like an interfering witch hunt."

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