Judicial Council rules it has no authority to review lesbian pastor’s acquittal

The highest court of the United Methodist Church has ruled that it does not have the authority to review the findings of the Rev. Karen T. Dammann trial court.

At the same time, the Judicial Council reaffirmed that a bishop may not appoint a pastor who has been found by a trial court to be a "self-avowed practicing homosexual."

Dammann, a clergy member of the Pacific-Northwest Annual (regional) Conference, was found not guilty March 20 of the charge of engaging in "practices incompatible with Christian teaching" as listed in Paragraph 2702.1(b) of the church’s 2000Book of Discipline. The clergy jury in the trial did find that Dammann openly admitted being a practicing homosexual.

The nine-member Judicial Council was asked by the 2004 General Conference - the church’s legislative body, in session through May 7 - for a declaratory decision. The conference approved a motion May 1 by the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, of the Kentucky Annual Conference delegation, asking for rulings on two points:

  • The application of the new Judicial Council decision, along with a previous decision and the Book of Discipline, on the Dammann verdict.
  • The "meaning, application and effect of Paragraph 304.3 … regarding whether a bishop may or may not appoint a pastor who had been found by a trial court to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual."

In its May 4 decision, the council cited the Book of Discipline (Paragraph 2715.10) and said it had no authority to review the outcome of the trial. The paragraph reads, "The Church shall have no right of appeal from the findings of the trial court. …"

As to the second part of the request for a ruling, the council’s ruling stated that its rationale did not address the Dammann trial but should only be applied "prospectively," or not retroactively. It repeated its most recent decision (No. 984), read to the General Conference on May 1, which confirmed that the practice of homosexuality is a chargeable offense for United Methodist clergy.

A bishop may not appoint a clergy person who has been found by a trial court to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual, the ruling continued. "It is, however, up to a trial court to make that determination."

The ruling also referred to Article 31 of the church’s constitution, which states in part: "The annual conference is the basic body of the church and as such shall have reserved to it the right to vote on … all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its clergy members, and on the ordination of clergy and such other rights as have not been delegated to the General Conference under the constitution."

And citing the Discipline (Paragraph 328.1), the council said that "all elders in full connection and in good standing in the annual conference are entitled to an appointment. A bishop does not have the authority to refuse to appoint any elder in full connection who is in good standing in the annual conference."

In 2001, Dammann wrote to her bishop, Elias Galvan, and stated that she could "no longer live the life of a closeted lesbian clergyperson." She stated that she was "living in a partnered, covenanted, homosexual relationship."

On March 20, 2004, a church trial court of 13 clergy found that while Dammann was clearly a "self-avowed practicing homosexual," she was not guilty of "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings." Following the verdict, Bishop Galvan said, "We have followed carefully the Discipline and ... the jury has rendered a verdict, and we must accept it."

On April 29, the Judicial Council ruled that the statement "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" (Paragraph 304.3 of the 2000 Book of Discipline) is indeed a declaration of the United Methodist Church.

Seven council members issued both dissenting and concurring opinions.

Council members Larry Pickens, Sally Curtis AsKew and Sally Brown Geis concurred with the decision that the council did not have jurisdiction to review the Dammann trial, but they also argued that the council did not have jurisdiction to rule on the second part of the request for decision.

"This is simply another attempt to find a way to overturn the trial court decision in the case of the Rev. Karen T. Dammann," they wrote. "This attempt is a direct contravention of Paragraph 31 of the constitution, which gives only the annual conference the right to vote on matters of conference relations of clergy members. This General Conference may not erode those rights by continually adding requirements which take that right away from the annual conference."

Mary Daffin, Rodolfo Beltran, Keith Boyette and James Holsinger said that while the Judicial Council "has properly stated that it has no authority to review the findings of the trial court ... that is not the question asked in the request for declaratory decision."

The four council members wrote, "The first question asked by the General Conference requests a declaratory decision on the application of the Book of Discipline to the ruling of the trial court in its verdict in the case of Rev. Dammann in light of Decisions 886 and 984. The Judicial Council has jurisdiction over this request under Paragraph 2610 of the 2000 Discipline. Where a trial court jury negates or ignores the Discipline, the only vehicle for the Church to hold the trial court jury accountable for such action is through the vehicle of a declaratory decision request."

The Dammann verdict raises "serious questions that go to the core of the application of theDiscipline," their opinion continued. The opinion added that an annual conference, through a trial court, "may not negate, ignore or violate church law set forth in the Discipline. In like manner, a trial jury is not free to disregard the interpretation that the Judicial Council has given to church law."

As to the second part of the request for a decision, the opinion issued by Daffin, Beltran, Boyette and Holsinger concurred that a bishop may not appoint a pastor who has been found by a trial court to be "a self-avowed practicing homosexual." The opinion cited Decision 920 of the council, which stated that "it is the General Conference which establishes the minimum standards for the ordained ministry of the church."

"The annual conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference, which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere," the opinion continued. The four council members added that this principle had been reaffirmed repeatedly by previous council decisions.

The opinion also cited Memorandum 930, which modified Decision 920 and outlined a procedure that ensures fair process to a clergy member whose eligibility for appointment is questioned under Paragraph 304.3.

The opinion stated: "Where the process outlined in Decision 920 culminates with a trial, and where the trial court sustains a specification that the clergy member is a self-avowed homosexual, the clergy member is no longer in good standing under Paragraph 325.1 and cannot be appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church as provided in Paragraph 304.3. No such clergy member could then be listed on the roll of clergy who are in good standing in the annual conference. The presiding bishop of the annual conference has both the authority and the responsibility to rule out of order any motion which would have the effect of listing such a person on the roll of clergy members who are in good standing."

*Caldwell is a correspondent for United Methodist News Service.

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After May 10: (615) 742-5470.

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