SAN FRANCISCO -- Two San Francisco congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have defended their ordinations of gay people during open hearings conducted here by a 12-member disciplinary committee.

The committee is required to issue its rulings by July 20. If the committee rules against the small congregations, they would be subject to censure, suspension or expulsion from the 5.3 million-member denomination.

In a highly publicized ceremony in January, St. Francis Lutheran Church ordained a lesbian couple, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, and First United Lutheran Church ordained a gay man, Jeff Johnson.

Under the law of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, gay people can be ordained only if they promise to be celibate, a promise that none of the three was willing to make.

The congregations have been charged with "willfully disregarding and violating a criterion for recognition as congregations."

At the public hearings of the disciplinary panel, held Saturday through Monday, scores of Lutherans said they reject church teachings on homosexuality. And each of the ordained gay people appeared to testify, wearing ministerial garb.

But Lowell Almen, secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, insisted in his testimony that sexual activity is appropriate only "within the bonds of marriage between male and female."

The Rev. John H. Frykman, pastor of First United, delivered an impassioned defense of his congregation's decision to ordain Johnson, 28. He argued that "ecclesiastical disobedience in the face of unjust practice by the church" is in the best tradition of Martin Luther, who began the German Reformation and rejected Rome's requirement that priests be celibate.

The Rev. James DeLange, pastor of St. Francis, which called to the ministry both Zillhart, 32, and Frost, 42, suggested that the ordinations were a matter of justice. He said the denomination's attempts to develop a comprehensive view of homosexuality are moving too slowly.

Zillhart said she had tried to hide her homosexuality in ministerial work in her native Minnesota. But she said she discovered that "the closet is doubly cruel . . . . It not only clouds one's personal life but erodes the very connections that birthed the desire for ministry: gospel experience and community ties."

Zillhart and Frost left Minnesota for San Francisco when they learned St. Francis was willing to ordain openly gay ministerial candidates. Frost, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, had temporarily given up on the ministry after graduating from Luther Northwestern Seminary.

Attorneys for the two congregations admitted that church rules exclude sexually active gay people from the ordained ministry but said there were "competing constitutional provisions." They argued that provisions demanding that church members seek justice contradict provisions prohibiting the ordination of sexually active gay people.

Unlike the congregations that ordained them, Zillhart, Frost and Johnson do not face charges, because the church hierarchy does not deem their ordinations to have any validity.