106 Florida churches sue to exit denomination

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Key points:

  • The Florida Conference is facing a lawsuit filed by more than 100 of its churches.
  • Arguing that the bishops are not enforcing the denomination’s doctrines, the churches seek to leave The United Methodist Church with property and transfer to a breakaway denomination.
  • However, an expert on church property law says the churches’ case may face some high hurdles in Florida courts. 

More than 100 churches have jointly filed a lawsuit against the Florida Conference, seeking to leave The United Methodist Church with property without facing a hefty exit payment.

Since the 18th century, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have maintained a trust clause, which states that all church property is held in trust for the entire denomination. Annual conferences, regional bodies containing multiple congregations and other ministries, typically are the enforcers of the trust clause. 

The lawsuit — filed by 106 churches in Florida’s Bradford County Court — asks the court to rule the trust clause “invalid on its face” or enable the congregations to revoke the trust so the churches can withdraw with their buildings. 

The underlying dispute is about same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. 

The United Methodist Church in its governing document, the Book of Discipline, has long asserted that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Discipline bans clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. 

However, those restrictions have faced increasing defiance among United Methodists in recent years as same-sex marriage has been legalized and attitudes toward LGBTQ people have changed. 

The lawsuit alleges that the United Methodist Council of Bishops and Florida Conference Bishop Kenneth H. Carter refuse “to abide by and enforce the doctrinal positions of the Book of Discipline explicitly rejecting the doctrinal positions it encourages and allows.”

Specifically, the lawsuit accuses Carter of not taking action against the denomination’s first openly gay bishop and a pastor in St. Petersburg who officiated at a same-sex wedding. 

In a letter to the conference, Carter stressed that The United Methodist Church’s “doctrinal standards have not changed and will not change, even as we continue on a journey to be a church that serves all people.” The United Methodist Church historically has differentiated between longstanding doctrines found in the denomination's Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, which are unchanging, and rules governing marriage and ordination, which have been amended over the years. For example, the denomination now allows divorced clergy.

These are the churches as named in the lawsuit

The Florida Conference currently has about 574 churches and 300 Fresh Expressions, new faith communities and ministries that could eventually grow to be new churches. 

The departure of the 106 churches would leave some Florida communities without a United Methodist presence.

Carter, who leads both the Florida and Western North Carolina conferences, told UM News that conference leaders have tried to work with all the churches involved in the lawsuit but to no avail. 

“Part of my grief is that I just love to see the Cross and Flame everywhere, to see The United Methodist Church everywhere there are people gathered,” Carter said.

All the churches in the lawsuit are seeking to transfer to the Global Methodist Church, a theologically conservative, breakaway denomination that launched May 1

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, an advocacy group that has served as the organizing force behind the Global Methodist Church, announced earlier this year that 107 Florida churches planned to join the Global Methodist Church. 

Jay Therrell, a former clergy member in the Florida Conference and now WCA president, confirmed that the 106 churches are the same as in the earlier announcement. However, Therrell referred questions to the National Center for Life and Liberty, the non-United Methodist group that is providing the churches with legal assistance.

The center describes itself as a legal ministry that seeks to “defend the Bible-based values.” David Gibbs III, the center’s president, is serving as the Florida churches’ attorney.

“We are confident that a Florida jury will remove the conference's hold on these churches’ properties, releasing them from this oppression,” Gibbs said in a statement. 

However, one lawyer who specializes in church property law suggests that the Florida churches may face some high hurdles in their case. 

Lloyd J. Lunceford, editor of “The Guide to Church Property Law” and a Presbyterian, led a webinar with Good News, a theologically conservative advocacy group that like the WCA is seeking to ease church transitions into the Global Methodist Church. Lunceford also has United Methodist clients in about a dozen states, but not in Florida.

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States vary in how they handle property disputes between religious parties, he said.

Most apply neutral principles, meaning they seek to resolve disputes on a case-by-case basis using the same property rules that apply in the secular world. 

Florida is among the minority of states that use what is called the deference method, Lunceford said. What that means is that courts in “deference” states will adopt the decision made by the highest church body involved in the matter — in this case the property decisions made by the annual conference. 

“They in effect defer to the ecclesiastical authorities,” Lunceford said. “And so a lower court in Florida would be bound to defer and rule in favor of The UMC.”

But no matter whether the court relies on neutral principles or the deference method, Lunceford added that churches won’t get very far arguing who is more faithful to church doctrine. 

“I’m not going to express an opinion about whether The United Methodist Church has or has not strayed from its founding doctrine,” the attorney said. “But assuming for the sake of discussion that it has … that’s an insufficient basis to rule in favor of a local church, as a matter of basic constitutional law.”

In Watson v. Jones from 1871, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it would resolve disputes about church property on a basis other than an examination of church doctrine. 

Within The United Methodist Church, debates regarding church teachings on homosexuality have raged for decades.

Only General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, can change the Discipline, and those seeking to maintain restrictions around marriage and ordination have repeatedly prevailed.

Tensions reached a breaking point at a tumultuous special General Conference in 2019. By a relatively narrow 438-384 vote, the delegates reinforced the church bans but that only heightened resistance. In late 2019, a group of bishops, including Carter, negotiated with leaders of various church advocacy groups of varied theological perspectives to develop a proposed plan for denominational separation.

Under the proposal, churches and entire annual conferences that support the bans would be able to leave with property and $25 million in United Methodist funds to start a new traditionalist denomination. The advocacy groups expected the Global Methodist Church to be that new denomination.

But with General Conference now postponed by the pandemic to 2024 and the Global Methodist Church already launched, it remains uncertain whether the separation proposal will have the votes to become church law

In the meantime, conferences have been relying on another measure approved at the 2019 General Conference — Paragraph 2553 — to facilitate church disaffiliations. The church law offers congregations a limited release from the denomination’s trust clause if they meet certain procedural and financial obligations. Among those obligations is that departing churches pay a fair share of their conference’s pension liabilities. 

The lawsuit by the Florida churches argues that Paragraph 2553, especially the pension obligations, “sets forth onerous, and in many cases, prohibitive requirements to disaffiliate.” 

The churches are seeking to use another Discipline provision — Paragraph 2548.2 — to transfer to another denomination. The bishops have asked the Judicial Council — the denomination’s supreme court — for clarity on how that provision should be applied. 

Not mentioned in the lawsuit is that the 2019 General Conference also overwhelmingly passed another measure — Paragraph 1504.23 — that requires departing churches to pay a fair share of pension liabilities no matter what mechanism they use to exit the denomination. An annual conference determines what a local church’s share is.

More than 400 churches have used Paragraph 2553 to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church, including 17 congregations in the Florida Conference.

Paragraph 2553 allows annual conferences to “develop additional standard terms that are not inconsistent with the standard form of this paragraph.” Some annual conferences have added financial terms

The Florida Conference has not added any financial terms. However, the conference board of trustees requires any disaffiliating church to procure liability insurance to protect its congregation, the Florida Conference and other conference churches against claims made after disaffiliation. 

“In all this, our overarching goal is to move through this process in a spirit where we can support, bless and love each other,” Carter said in the conference letter. “A tenet of our faith is that we embrace a Church built in loving relationships rather than uniformity in thought and action.”

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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