Church court faces resolutions on LGBTQ inclusion

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Key points:

  • The Judicial Council released four rulings as it works through its fall docket.
  • Two of the church court’s decisions relate to conference resolutions about the status of LGBTQ people in the church.
  • The church court also faces big questions from the Council of Bishops. However, the Judicial Council must wait to rule on those questions until after briefs are due.

When does a resolution related to LGBTQ people count as aspirational and when does it condone violations of church law?

The United Methodist Church’s top court released two decisions related to such resolutions along with two other rulings April 19.

Because of the pandemic, the Judicial Council continues to meet periodically online to consider items on its docket and release decisions as they are completed.

The Judicial Council also has agreed to take up two requests for declaratory decisions from the Council of Bishops.

The bishops’ first request is a series of questions about whether annual conferences (church regional bodies) within the United States can leave the denomination under current church law. The deadline for the submission of briefs on Judicial Council Docket 1021-23 was April 12, with reply briefs due April 22.

The bishops also asked the Judicial Council a series of questions about whether they can schedule regular U.S. jurisdictional conferences to elect new bishops. Briefs for this item, Docket 1021-24, are due April 19 and reply briefs are due April 29

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, specifies in Paragraph 2608 that parties to a matter before the Judicial Council shall have the opportunity to file briefs. The paragraph also requires that the deadline for submission shall be no less than 30 days from when the Judicial Council posts the docket item.

In the meantime, the Judicial Council released rulings on items that have been on its docket since last fall. Two stemmed from questions of law raised during annual conference sessions.

Bishops frequently face such questions during church meetings where they preside, and the Discipline requires the Judicial Council to review all the bishops’ resulting decisions.

A recurrent source of questions for bishops and thus the Judicial Council is the language of conference-approved resolutions related to the denomination’s longtime debate around LGBTQ inclusion. Often at issue is whether the language in these resolutions negates, ignores or contradicts the Discipline.

The church law book bans clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings and prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. However, some conferences have challenged these bans.

In Decision 1435, the church court affirmed Bishop Laurie Haller’s decision that the Dakotas Conference resolution, “A Vision for a More Just Church,” is partly aspirational and partly in violation of the Discipline. The conference approved the resolution by a vote of 179 to 172.

Haller said the early parts of the resolution “frame the aspirational intent” and are rooted in values expressed in the Discipline, including that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.”

Also in line with church law, she said, is the resolution’s statement urging local churches to welcome and include LGBTQ members.

However, she struck down as “null and void” other parts of the resolution that she said used language encouraging church-law violations.

The voided portions included paragraphs urging the conference’s board of ordained ministry not to consider a candidate’s sexual orientation, allowing individual pastors to discern if they will officiate at same-sex weddings and directing the bishop to refrain from conducting clergy trials related to the LGBTQ restrictions.

The Judicial Council agreed with the bishop. “The resolution ‘A Vision for a More Just Church’ is partly aspirational and partly in violation of the Discipline as noted herein by the presiding Bishop,” the church court ruled.

Last year, the Michigan Annual Conference also passed a resolution saying no lay or clergy member shall be denied access to an equal place in church life “because of race, color, gender, sexual orientation, gender  identity, relationship, ability, national origin, status, or economic condition.” That resolution passed by a vote of 704 to 333.

In Decision 1434, the Judicial Council reversed Bishop David Bard’s decision of law related to the resolution but did not rule on the merits of the resolution itself. The church court determined a clergy member’s critical statements about the resolution did not constitute a proper question of law.

“A request for ruling of law must contain one or more questions to be properly before a bishop,” the church court said. “A statement outlining the alleged grounds of disciplinary violations is not a question of law.”

In other rulings released April 19, the Judicial Council dealt with procedural matters.

In Memorandum 1442, the church court declined a request for a declaratory decision from the Upper New York Conference because a majority of conference voters did not support the request. The Upper New York Conference petition sought clarification around nominations to the board of ordained ministry. However, the conference vote for the request was 286 to 366.

The Book of Discipline authorizes annual conferences to ask for declaratory decisions, and the Upper New York Conference forwarded the request to the Judicial Council because it garnered at least one-fifth support.

The Discipline allows General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative assembly, to ask the church court about an action’s constitutionality by a one-fifth vote. However, the Discipline does not say how much support an annual conference’s declaratory-decision request must garner. Citing an earlier ruling, the church court said that when the Discipline does not stipulate a vote threshold, a simple majority is required.

“The motion presented at the 2021 session of the Upper New York Annual Conference did not meet this threshold requirement,” the church court ruled. “The Judicial Council lacks jurisdiction in this matter.”

In Decision 1443, the Judicial Council said the proper procedure was not followed in addressing a question of law raised during a joint charge conference in the California-Pacific Conference.

A charge conference is the basic governing body of a United Methodist church. A lay member raised a question of law when multiple charge conferences met at the same time. 

When a United Methodist raises a question of law during a charge conference, the church court said, the Discipline requires a multi-step process. First, the district superintendent must make a ruling. Next, the charge conference secretary must include that ruling in the charge conference minutes and send certified copies of the ruling to the annual conference secretary and the bishop. The bishop then hears the ruling as an appeal, and finally whatever the bishop decides goes to the Judicial Council for review.

Because the district superintendent and charge conference secretary did not follow their steps in the process, the Judicial Council “reversed and vacated” Bishop Grant Hagiya’s ruling on the charge-conference question. 

The Rev. Luan-Vu “Lui” Tran, who serves on the Judicial Council, recused himself from deliberating on this decision because he is a member of the California-Pacific Conference.

Judicial Council member Beth Capen issued a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. She agreed that the record shared with the Judicial Council did not include a written ruling by the district superintendent. However, she wrote, the remedy would be to defer the matter and direct the district superintendent to answer the question of law and submit it for the bishop’s review.

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.


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