Court voids 2016 rule for bishops outside U.S.

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The United Methodist Church’s top court has declared “null and void” a 2016 legislative action that changed retirement requirements for central conference bishops.

The legislation adopted by General Conference 2016 was in violation of the top lawmaking assembly’s own policy because the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters did not review or report on the legislation, the Judicial Council ruled. Central conferences represent church members outside the U.S. and its territories.

The court also issued a decision on a 2018 bishop’s ruling on two clergy candidates in the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

Those decisions were part of a special session held Feb. 19-21 by Judicial Council, which deliberated mostly on items held from the October 2018 meeting docket. Council members will remain in St. Louis throughout the denomination’s special General Conference, Feb. 23-26.

General Conference 2016 adopted Calendar Item 218, which, as amended, changed the retirement date for a bishop in a central conference from one year to three months following the adjournment of General Conference “if the bishop’s 68th birthday is reached on or before the opening day of his or her scheduled conference effective on January 1, 2016.”

The “role and function” of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, as the Judicial Council pointed out in Decision 1370, “is to review all legislative petitions and resolutions relating to central conferences and to recommend them directly to General Conference for enactment.”

In this case, such a review did not happen, rendering the adoption of the legislation “null and void.” Once that ruling was made, Judicial Council said, there was no need to consider whether disciplinary language related to the legislation was unconstitutional.

A 2018 decision of law by Baltimore-Washington Bishop LaTrelle Easterling was affirmed in part and reversed in part by the Judicial Council. Easterling had ruled that two individuals approved by the conference's Board of Ordained Ministry were not eligible for ordination and commissioning.

The Rev. Mark Gorman put two questions to Easterling during that annual conference session. The questions were related to the Board of Ordained Ministry’s policy not to consider or evaluate sexual orientation when interviewing candidates for ordination.

He asked whether the conference must exclude the board’s report “pertaining to the election of candidates for membership or provisional membership” because the policy is not compliant with church law. After the conference, Easterling ruled that question moot, a ruling the court affirmed in Decision 1368.

Easterling’s ruling on the second question of law removed two candidates who shared in writing that they were married to persons of the same gender from consideration by the clergy session. The Judicial Council reversed that decision “since it violated the separation of powers by intruding on the responsibilities and rights of the clergy session.”

The council explained that a bishop does not have the authority “to prevent the clergy session from fulfilling its responsibilities, or to exclude individuals to come forward as candidates either for commissioning or for ordination.”

In other business, Judicial Council said it was unable to act on an appeal by counsel for the West Ohio Conference on a jurisdictional court ruling related to charges filed against the Rev. David Meredith. The Cincinnati pastor married his same-sex partner of almost 30 years in 2016.

When the North Central Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals issued a ruling on errors made by the West Ohio Conference’s investigative committee — sending the case back to the conference — the appeals committee also asked the conference to hold off on any further judicial proceedings until after the special General Conference is completed.

In Memorandum 1374, Judicial Council said it had no jurisdiction to issue a decision because the church counsel had no authority “to pursue this interlocutory appeal.” In a footnote to the dismissal of the appeal, however, the court said its action should not be read as an endorsement of the jurisdictional committee on appeals order to “pause” the proceedings against Meredith.

Two of the court’s February rulings related to decisions of law by Bishop John Schol for the Greater New Jersey Conference

One ruling concerned whether the bishop and conference committees or agencies had the authority to join a lawsuit in the name of the annual conference that addressed the segregation of black and Latino public school students in New Jersey. The conference’s board of trustees and 11 other agencies supported “being a plaintiff” when the lawsuit was filed May 17 and the annual conference voted to affirm that decision on May 21.

When a lay member requested a decision of law about the lines of authority in that situation, Schol ruled that the board of trustees had authority to take the initial action of joining the lawsuit and then present legislation so the annual conference could decide whether to continue to be a plaintiff.

But in Decision 1371, Judicial Council ruled that because this was not an issue pertaining to property or rights to property, the board of trustees did not have the authority to join the lawsuit on the conference’s behalf, regardless of the concerns over segregation in the state educational system.

“The interests and commitments on the part of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and the desire of the annual conference to participate in the lawsuit are not at issue,” the court said in reversing the bishop’s decision.

In the second decision related to Greater New Jersey, Decision 1372, Judicial Council agreed with the bishop’s ruling that a request for a decision of law about local church conferences did not pertain to annual conference business. But the court reversed the other part of Schol’s decision of law and said it could not “contain an alternative disposition based on a hypothetical scenario.”

In another matter, and responding to an administrative appeal by the Rev. Eric Seise, the council directed the denomination’s Southeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals to issue a new ruling. Seise was placed on involuntary leave of absence by the Florida Conference, which discontinued his provisional membership.

The appeals committee did not have enough information in its “strikingly brief opinion,” said Memorandum 1373. “Without a well-reasoned appellate opinion that includes the facts, procedural history, legal authorities, and analysis of the case, the Appellant cannot understand the ruling’s rationale and adequately prepare his appeal, nor can the Judicial Council properly review and rule on the merits of his case,” the memorandum said.

In Memorandum 1369, the Judicial Council said it lacked jurisdiction to consider a request from the North Texas Conference because it involved a parliamentary ruling from Bishop Michael McKee, not a decision of law.

Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York.

Follow her at https://twitter.com/umcscribe or contact her at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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