General Conference asks court to re-examine acquittal of lesbian pastor

The United Methodist General Conference has directed its highest judicial body to re-examine the March acquittal of an openly lesbian pastor, the Rev. Karen Dammann, and determine if a United Methodist bishop can legally appoint a self-avowed practicing homosexual.

On April 29, the Judicial Council ruled that the practice of homosexuality is a chargeable offense for clergy. By a 6-3 margin, the denomination’s supreme court said that the statement "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," contained in Paragraph 304.3 of the 2000Book of Discipline, is indeed a declaration of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. That statement is "unambiguous," the ruling said.

Immediately after the April 29 ruling was read May 1, on the floor of General Conference, the Rev. Maxie Dunnam of the Kentucky delegation moved that the Judicial Council determine what the "meaning, application and effect" of the decision would be on the outcome of the Dammann trial. The clergy member of the Pacific-Northwest Annual (regional) Conference was found innocent of the charge of engaging in "practices incompatible with Christian teaching" as listed in Paragraph 2702.1(b).

"This trial has received such widespread national attention," said Dunnam, president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. "Everyone is waiting for the General Conference to respond to this issue.

"We see ourselves as one family, and we have to live by the same discipline," said Dunnam.

The Rev. Frank Dorsey of the Kansas East delegation rose to protest Dunnam’s motion, saying that it was "striking at our heart with a knife to … destroy our church." He said he could not trust the Judicial Council with the ability to make a fair ruling on this important issue. Dorsey referred to a corrected preface to the Social Principles saying "they are not church law." The statement is included in "The ERRATA to the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2000."

The General Conference voted 551-345 to approve Dunnam’s motion.

Three Judicial Council members who voted against the majority decision issued dissenting opinions on the ruling. The Rev. Larry Pickens and Sally Brown Geis issued a joint dissent, while Sally AsKew issued an individual dissent.

The Judicial Council’s ruling followed a motion by Arkansas delegate Fred H. Haustein from the floor of General Conference that directed the council to examine the statement in Paragraph 304.3 of theDiscipline and decide whether or not it constituted a declaration by the United Methodist Church. And, the motion continued, if it was a declaration, did that mean it was part of church law?

Paragraph 304.3 of the Discipline reads: "While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."

The phrase "practices incompatible with Christian teaching" is included in Paragraph 2702.1(b) under the heading "Chargeable Offenses" for United Methodist clergy. That paragraph was approved at the 1980 General Conference, four years before the language in Paragraph 304.3 was approved.

The April 30 ruling reaffirmed an October ruling that the Book of Discipline is "the law of the church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the church." At that time, the council upheld theDiscipline as denominational law and reversed the decisions of two lower-ranking church bodies, the Western Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals and the Pacific Northwest Conference Committee on Investigation. In split votes, both committees had supported the dismissal of charges against Dammann.

In its October ruling, the council said both committees had committed "an egregious error of church law" by refusing to apply the Book of Discipline and earlier decisions to the case. The council ordered the jurisdictional appeals committee to send the case back to the conference committee on investigation for a new hearing, which paved the way for Dammann’s trial. There, a 13-member jury of her peers found Dammann innocent.

Following that verdict, the Council of Bishops issued a statement that said the Pacific-Northwest ruling "does not alter the Book of Discipline regarding homosexuality or the qualifications for ministry. The Discipline’s authority is unchanged. Nor does this case directly affect other annual conferences as they may adjudicate such cases."

The April 29 Judicial Council decision said that chargeable offenses are defined as "pronouncements adopted by General Conference and codified in the Discipline."

The ruling also addressed the use of the word "since" in Paragraph 304.3, which was a point mentioned by a key witness at Dammann’s trial as meaning the statement was a part of the church’sSocial Principles and not official church law.

"The inclusion of the word ‘since’ as a conjunction introducing the phrase does not diminish the import of the statement which follows the conjunction," the council’s ruling read. "Quite the contrary, its usage connotes an emphatic declaration." The ruling added that the statement "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" was in fact a public statement, explicit assertion and proclamation.

In their joint dissent, Pickens and Geis wrote that they did not agree that the statement in Paragraph 304.3 rose to "the status of church law" but instead made reference to Paragraph 161G of the Social Principles. "Paragraph 304.3, standing alone, is inconclusive and does not represent a definitive declarative statement by the General Conference," they wrote.

In her dissent, AsKew wrote: "I must also confess that I made an error in concurring with Decision 980. More research and prayerful consideration have convinced me that I never should have concurred in saying that The United Methodist Church has made a declaration in Paragraph 304.3 that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

*Caldwell is a United Methodist News Service correspondent.

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

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