Church court makes impact

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As the bishops met in August, The United Methodist Church’s top court issued a landmark ruling that could have implications for lawsuits over church property in U.S. civil courts.

In Decision 1449, the Judicial Council ruled out the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 2548.2 as a pathway for congregations to disaffiliate. Instead, the church court pointed to another disciplinary provision — Paragraph 2553 — as the way for congregations to leave with both members and property. 

The 2019 special General Conference — the same assembly that reinforced the denomination’s bans on same-sex marriage and noncelibate gay ordination —enacted Paragraph 2553 with the express purpose of “Disaffiliation of Local Churches Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality.” 

Paragraph 2553 requires departing churches to meet certain procedural and financial obligations — namely paying at least two years of apportionments and a share of their annual conferences’ unfunded clergy pension liability. The church law expires on Dec. 31, 2023. 

The impact of the recent Judicial Council decision “is straightforward,” said Thomas Starnes, chancellor for the Baltimore-Washington Conference, who had filed a brief before the church court. Chancellors are attorneys who represent United Methodist annual conferences. 

“Any local church’s disaffiliation must satisfy the minimum standards imposed by the General Conference in Paragraph 2553,” he said. “In other words, the decision forecloses the notion that the Discipline provides some ‘end-around.’”

The version of Paragraph 2553 that General Conference approved was substitute legislation proposed by traditionalists. At the time, many United Methodists assumed it would be mostly LGBTQ-affirming congregations leaving the denomination. 

However, for the most part, it has been traditionalist churches seeking to exit. And since the launch of the Global Methodist Church in May, many of the new denomination’s backers — including the Wesleyan Covenant Association — have decried Paragraph 2553 as too onerous, especially since it gives annual conferences leeway in setting church exit terms

The Rev. Jay Therrell, association president, said 19 conferences are “adding even more requirements and financial payments that make it out of reach for most churches.”

He also objects to the funding required by another provision the 2019 General Conference overwhelmingly approved — Paragraph 1504.23, which specifies that “market factors similar to a commercial annuity provider” will be used in determining pension liabilities no matter how a church departs. Therrell said calculating pension obligations on a market basis rather than funded basis leaves annual conferences overfunded. 

The Wesleyan Covenant Association and other Global Methodist Church backers have pushed for annual conferences to use Paragraph 2548.2 as an alternative. The disciplinary provision allows an annual conference to direct the local church trustees to deed property to another denomination that already has an existing agreement with The United Methodist Church. 

No such agreement exists with the Global Methodist Church. The Judicial Council also ruled that Paragraph 2548.2 only applies to property and not membership. 

After the Judicial Council decision’s release, Therrell released a video expressing the association’s disappointment. “If it is at all possible to use 2553, then do so,” he told churches considering disaffiliation. However, he said, churches that find the obligations too burdensome “may have to engage in a legal strategy.”

That is already happening in some corners. In July, 106 churches joined in a civil lawsuit filed against Florida Conference leaders, demanding the conference use Paragraph 2548.2 to transfer the disaffiliating congregations to the Global Methodist Church.

The National Center for Life and Liberty, a non-Methodist legal nonprofit, is representing the churches in the Florida lawsuit and has since sent letters to other conferences threatening legal action on behalf of disaffiliating churches if the conferences don’t use Paragraph 2548.2. 

Therrell, a member of the Florida Bar, told UM News he receives no remuneration for the National Center for Life and Liberty but has served in an “of counsel” role completely pro bono to advise the nonprofit on the polity of The United Methodist Church.

Therrell referred questions about the lawsuit and threatened legal action to Jonathan Bailie, the center’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer. Bailie has not answered UM News’ requests for comment.

United Methodist chancellors say the Judicial Council ruling could have an impact on civil courts. 

“In the Florida litigation, especially, it will strengthen the church’s position, since that state is a ‘deference’ state,” said George “Buzzy” Anding, Louisiana Conference chancellor and president of the United Methodist Church Conference Chancellors Association.

“That means the Florida court will give deference to the Judicial Council’s determination of church law.”

Bishop Kenneth Carter, who leads the Florida and Western North Carolina conferences, issued a letter saying the Florida Conference would now seek the dismissal of the ongoing lawsuit based in part on the Judicial Council decision.

“Still, amid this new clarity, we also want to make one thing clear on behalf of the Florida Conference: Within the bounds of Paragraph 2553, we extend an open hand of friendship to those churches and leaders seeking to disaffiliate,” Carter said in the letter. 

Return to main story, Bishops push back against recruitment tactics

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