The man had been attending a Methodist church in South Hill, Va., for several months. He sang in the choir. He owned a business and was well known in the community. But when he asked to become a formal member of the church, the pastor turned him down, because he is gay.

Those are the bare facts of a case that has split a 650-member congregation in southern Virginia and that threatens to divide the 8 million-member United Methodist Church, the nation's second largest Protestant denomination.

Yesterday in Houston, the Methodists' highest court heard an appeal from the pastor of South Hill United Methodist Church, the Rev. Edward Johnson. He was placed on unpaid leave after he rejected entreaties from his immediate supervisor and his bishop to admit the gay man, who has not been named by church officials and has declined to talk about the case.

Nationally, the Methodist Church prohibits "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" from serving as ordained ministers. But it has declared that gay men and lesbians are "persons of sacred worth" and has repeatedly said there are no bars to their participation as lay people.

"The theme of our church for five years now has been 'Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.' The issue here is, 'Are we really open or not?' " said the Rev. W. Anthony Layman, who was Johnson's district superintendent when the pastor was removed in June by a 581 to 20 vote of fellow ministers in the church's Virginia conference.

Johnson's legal counsel, the Rev. Tom Thomas, argued at yesterday's hearing that the Methodist Church gives its pastors sole discretion to admit or reject people as congregation members. He said Johnson believed that he could not, in good conscience, admit someone who acknowledged being in a same-sex relationship.

"Pastor Johnson was not drawing a line at a homosexual person, but at homosexual practice, which we think is an important distinction," he said in a telephone interview. "The first vow in taking membership in the United Methodist Church is to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and repent of your sins. The pastor felt that the person was not able to take that vow, because he did not honestly acknowledge that his practice was a sin."

Like other Protestant denominations, the Methodist Church has been fighting for decades over its understanding of sexuality and scripture. Its nine-member supreme court, the Judicial Council, also heard arguments yesterday about the Rev. Irene Elizabeth "Beth" Stroud, who had announced to her Philadelphia congregation that she was living in a "covenanted" relationship with another woman.

In December, a jury of 13 clergy members removed Stroud's credentials as an ordained minister. But a regional appeals panel overturned that verdict, citing legal errors in the trial and the ambiguity of a clause in the church's constitution that pledges no discrimination on the basis of "status."

To conservative Methodists, the combination of Johnson's punishment and Stroud's exoneration came as a double blow. They are hoping the Judicial Council will reverse both decisions when it issues its rulings, possibly as early as Monday, said Mark Tooley, a specialist on Methodism at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington think-tank.

"Those on the liberal side who want to change the sexual standards feel like they're persecuted by the church -- and now, those on the conservative side feel likewise," Tooley said.

Johnson and Stroud have been praised by their supervisors as talented, caring pastors. Layman said he filed the complaint that led to Johnson's removal after trying for months to persuade him to accept the gay applicant.

"Before this happened, he was one of the most gifted pastors in my district. I know deep within me that he is living out his conscience," Layman said.

The Rev. G. Brown O'Quinn, a retired minister who is serving as interim pastor in South Hill, said he has asked the congregation and its staff not to talk to the news media "at this critical, painful time." But some have publicly supported Johnson.

Church member Gary W. Creamer told the Mecklenburg Sun newspaper that Johnson "was holding to Biblical principle" and that "a terrible injustice" was done to the pastor.

Layman said other members believe a terrible injustice was done to the gay man. "If you read the Gospels as I do, you will find that Jesus got in trouble when he spoke to women, he put his arms around children, he talked to the demon possessed and he went into the caves to spend time with lepers," he said.

"For Ed [Johnson], it really was a matter of believing that, scripturally, he had to take his stand. And I said that, scripturally, I had to take my stand. So here we are," Layman said.