Three of the five major Democratic candidates for D.C. mayor said they support legalization of civil unions for same-sex couples, but they told a forum of Baptist ministers yesterday that they would not try to force reluctant pastors to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), former telecommunications executive Marie C. Johns and lobbyist Michael A. Brown said they are in favor of changing D.C. law to permit same-sex couples to form civil unions. Such a move would make the District one of the few jurisdictions in the nation to provide that degree of legal recognition.

The other candidates -- council Chairman Linda W. Cropp and council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) -- said they oppose same-sex marriage. "I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman," Orange said.

Orange, however, said he would uphold a gay marriage law if passed by the D.C. Council. And Cropp said she would "uphold the laws of other states" that permit gay marriages, a step retiring Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has so far been unwilling to take.

Questions about same-sex marriage were near the top of the agenda at the mayoral forum organized by the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference. With interest high in the 2006 campaign, the conference joined three other organizations representing hundreds of area Baptist churches to conduct the two-hour forum, which drew well over 100 people on a snowy afternoon to the Trinidad Baptist Church on Benning Road NE.

Although the church organizations cannot endorse candidates, "We still have the duty to provide information, so those we pastor can make the best decisions," the conference president, the Rev. Louis B. Jones II, said.

The questions, selected by the conference's civic and social committee, covered a range of topics, including public education, affordable housing, health care for the poor and the awarding of city contracts to African American businesses.

The ministers also asked the candidates to address a number of "religious concerns," including what incentives they would give churches to do business in the city. And they asked the candidates whether they would make the nation's capital more "church-friendly" by, for example, easing parking restrictions on Sunday mornings.

But the question about same-sex marriage was by far the most controversial, and it exposed sharp differences between candidates who were willing to voice support for same-sex unions and those who categorized themselves as opposed.

The question also appeared to put Fenty on the defensive. Last week, the Washington Blade, a gay weekly newspaper, reported that Fenty is the only candidate who has expressed full support for legal recognition of same-sex marriage in the District and that he would push a gay marriage bill, despite threats from Congress to overturn such legislation.

Yesterday, before a church full of ministers, Fenty declined to use the words "same-sex marriage," and instead declared his support for "civil unions."

In an interview, Fenty said marriage and civil unions are "the same thing."

"You'd be surprised at how many people don't understand it. You're not saying that a pastor has to do it," he said. "When you say marriage, all they think about is church."

After the forum, Jones said he preferred the way Orange and Cropp addressed the issue. "Linda Cropp answered the question pointedly by saying, 'I'm not for same-sex marriages.' "

But the Rev. George C. Gilbert Sr., the pastor who moderated the forum and helped devise the questions, said he wasn't happy with any of the candidates' answers.

"I think they all kind of skirted and gave a political answer," Gilbert said. "Civil unions is a compromise. We don't need to compromise. We need people to have enough courage to say we're not going to allow this."

D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, a candidate for mayor, addresses the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference at Trinidad Baptist Church as candidates Vincent B. Orange Sr., center, and Michael A. Brown listen.