Bishops say Judicial Council rulings add clarity

Amid confusion as to the meaning of a decision handed down May 4 during 2004 General Conference, two United Methodist bishops weighed in with their opinions that the denomination’s supreme court had made their duties much clearer in regard to not appointing clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”

However, the implications of the Judicial Council’s ruling for the Rev. Karen Dammann are less clear, according to the bishops.

Dammann, a pastor in Washington state, was acquitted March 20 in a clergy trial that stemmed from her disclosure that she was living in a homosexual relationship. In its May 4 decision, the Judicial Council said it could not intervene in the outcome of that trial under church law.

The council issued two decisions in six days related to the issue of homosexuality. It ruled April 29 that being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” was a chargeable offense for clergy, and added that the statement in the denomination’s Book of Discipline that homosexuality is “inconsistent with Christian teaching” is an official declaration of the United Methodist Church.

Then, on May 4, the council said it did not have jurisdiction to review the Dammann case, but reaffirmed that a United Methodist bishop may not legally appoint someone who has been found by a trial court to be a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” 

“This adds a great deal of clarity,” said Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Arkansas Area. “Whether you agree or disagree with the church’s position on homosexuality, these rulings do make it clear in regard to appointments in future cases. If a trial finds a clergy person to be a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual,’ then that person cannot be appointed. This makes it absolutely clear.”

Retired Bishop Joseph Yeakel, of Hagerstown, Md., said the ruling “provides instruction to bishops that they may not appoint a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual.’ Once my colleagues see this in writing, it will be clear to them what they can and cannot do, and they will properly administer the Discipline.”

Should a bishop make such an appointment, Yeakel said, then he or she could be subject to charges of failing to uphold the Book of Discipline. “The council’s first (April 29) ruling was very helpful. Whether we like it or not, it is now clear,” he said.

Yeakel said the May 4 decision also makes it clear that the Judicial Council could not re-examine the ruling in the recent trial of Dammann, an admitted lesbian who was found not guilty of being in violation of church law by a jury of her clergy peers. The church’s 2000 Discipline (Paragraph 2715.10) says that "the church shall have no right of appeal from findings of the trial court."

“The ruling, as I understand it, is that the Judicial Council does not have the right to ‘reach out’ and take the trial under review,” Yeakel said. Trial courts are established by annual conferences and a Judicial Council cannot “try someone for the same charge; there’s no double jeopardy in church life, either,” he said.

“What the Judicial Council ruling means,” Yeakel added, “is that Karen Dammann is eligible for an appointment.”

Huie was less certain as to Dammann’s future. “The (appointment) situation forward is quite clear,” she said. “The situation with Dammann is less clear.”

“It’s pretty muddy,” Yeakel agreed, after reconsidering.

Following the March not-guilty verdict of the church court, Dammann is considered a clergyperson in good standing. The council’s May 4 ruling cited Paragraph 328.1 of the Discipline, which says that all elders in full connection and in good standing in the annual conference are entitled to an appointment.

“An elder in full connection has a guarantee of an appointment,” Yeakel said. “Elders also have a constitutional guaranteed right to trial, even in they make a confession. A jury in a church trial determines guilt or innocence. If the verdict is guilty, then that trial court determines the penalty. That penalty is now predetermined if they find that the person is a self-avowed practicing homosexual.”

Dammann is on family leave in the Pacific-Northwest Annual (regional) Conference, one of several status categories available to United Methodist clergy. Any change of status must go before the conference’s board of ordained ministry, which comprises both clergy and lay members, and must then be approved by a vote of the clergy session at the annual conference meeting. “That is what the clergy session at annual conference is for,” Huie said. “Anyone who is making a status change has to go through the process.”

“The first step toward any change in her status would be a meeting with her bishop,” Yeakel said. “At that time, she could voluntarily surrender her credentials, which would negate any question of an appointment. She might make a new confession and get a new trial.”

Or she could request an appointment. “Then her bishop would have to make a decision,” Yeakel said. “She is a member of the annual conference and requires conference action to have the privilege of sacramental ministry. A bishop does not act unilaterally.”

Dammann’s bishop, Elias Galvan, is due to retire on Aug. 31.

* Caldwell is a United Methodist News Service news writer.

News media contact: (412) 325-6080 during General Conference, April 27-May 7. After May 10: (615) 742-5470.


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