The Rev. Jerry Falwell will attend the Southern Baptist Convention next week in Salt Lake City to support a longtime friend seeking the denomination's presidency.

But an aide to Falwell played down the significance of Falwell's trip."He's decided to go . . . in large part to support Paige Patterson for the presidency," Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for Falwell, said Thursday. "It's a first, but it's not a big deal in that he's not an officer and not getting in the middle of a contested election."

Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., is unopposed for the top office in the Nashville, Tenn.-based denomination.

Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church has been independent since Falwell founded it in 1956. But the church was granted voting rights at the convention after giving money to a splinter group of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. The splinter group, Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, is affiliated with the national organization.

Southern Baptist Convention spokesman William Merrell said Falwell will be a welcome addition to the convention.

"His visibility in the world at large is well known and his commitment to evangelism and propagating the gospel is commendable," Merrell said.