Mandatory penalties ruled unconstitutional

Imposing a mandatory penalty during the “just resolution” process for a clergyperson admitting to committing a chargeable offense is unconstitutional, The United Methodist Church’s top court has ruled.

Decision 1318 from Judicial Council came after a referral May 17 from the Judicial Administration Legislative Committee of General Conference 2016 regarding its adoption of three petitions on “just resolution” that would amend Paragraphs 363.1, 2701.5 and 2706.5c3 in the Book of Discipline.

Each petition requires that any clergyperson under complaint who admits to a chargeable offense during the just resolution process with his or her bishop would receive a mandatory penalty of at least one year’s suspension without pay. The penalty would be applied to any judicial complaint listed in Paragraph 2702.1.

The amended paragraphs would give the authority for setting a penalty with the bishop, but the Book of Discipline places that authority with a trial court. “Unless the respondent voluntarily agrees to a just resolution to promote healing among all parties, a penalty may only be affixed after the respondent has been found guilty of an offense by a trial court,” the decision said.

A just resolution is the goal of the supervisory response process after a complaint has been filed, but that process is “not part of any judicial process and does not include legal counsel or a verbatim record,” the decision said. “The complaint at this point in the process is considered an allegation.”

A just resolution “can be an alternative way of handling chargeable offenses,” but the call “for a specific penalty in creating a just resolution is also unconstitutional as it denies the clergyperson the specific right to trial and appeal,” the council’s decision stated.

The petitions also transfer the authority of the annual conference to vote “on all matters related to the character and conference relations of its clergy members” to the General Conference, the decision pointed out, “and that transfer is unconstitutional.”

Some in the church have been unhappy with just resolutions for clergy who have performed same-gender marriage ceremonies, stating that such a resolution is too lenient for what they view as a violation of the United Methodist clergy covenant. The denomination’s Book of Discipline forbids United Methodist clergy from performing same-gender unions.

 Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at https://twitter.com/umcscribe or contact her at (615)742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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