The nine members of a United Methodist regional appeals committee have wrapped up nearly three hours of testimony and questioning, and the fate of Frank Schaefer now rests in their hands.
A decision about whether he can add “the Rev.” to his name again is expected Saturday, June 21, but the committee has 20 days to consider the verdict.
Former pastor of Iona (Penn.) United Methodist Church, Schaefer was defrocked after a November 2013 church trial. He is seeking to overturn the penalty that stripped him of his clergy credentials.
He was found guilty of violating The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, by conducting a same-sex marriage ceremony for his son. He was also found guilty of violating the church’s order and discipline.
In the penalty stage of the trial, the court suspended Schaefer from his ministerial duties for 30 days and declared that if he could not “uphold the Discipline in its entirety” at the end of the suspension, he would surrender his credentials. He refused to do that and on Dec. 19 the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Board of Ordained Ministry asked him to give up his credentials.
The nine-member Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals heard the Rev. Scott Campbell, counsel for Schaefer, say their appeal was based on the defrocking penalty given Schaefer, not the 30-day suspension for performing his son’s same-gender wedding.
Schaefer, who said before the hearing began that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the outcome, spoke with reporters after the hearing.
“I felt it went pretty well,” he said. “I felt very good about the testimony my counsel gave, and I felt good about the questions that were raised, particularly of the counsel for the church — I felt they were somewhat critical and that gave me a good feeling.”
One question from the committee caught Schaefer’s attention. It was asked by the Rev. Lyssette Perez, a clergy member from the Greater New Jersey Annual (regional) Conference, who wondered what the impact would be on the church if he were reinstated in light of the debate that is ongoing in the church.
“I thought my counsel’s response to that was brilliant,” Schaefer said. “He said, ‘You have to look at the law.’ We have to abide by our own rules in the church, and that gives us some security. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to say that this penalty that I received was not in line with our church law. So I’m hopeful the panel will do exactly that: look at the law and come up with a just decision.”
Arguments before the committee
Campbell argued to the committee that the defrocking was based on possible behavior that Schaefer may — or may not — do in the future, namely, “upholding the Book of Discipline in its entirety.”
“The church is not at liberty to add a penalty based on what a person may or may not do,” Campbell said. “The act of marrying his son was the only thing he was on trial for.”
Campbell repeatedly told the committee that the trial court was not at liberty to “mix and match” penalties for Schaefer. Citing Judicial Council ruling 240, Campbell said the trial court had to choose which penalty to affix to the case, but it could not do both suspension and termination.
“That was an egregious error in church law,” Campbell said.
The Rev. Christopher Fisher, counsel for the church, said in his statement that the only items the appeals committee could rule on were: 1) was there a question of guilt; and 2) were there any errors of law in the trial.
“Were there errors of law?” Fisher asked. “We submit, no.”
Fisher said that Judicial Council ruling 240 was not applicable in this case because it was written before the current language in the Book of Discipline took effect. The 2012 Book of Discipline (in Paragraph 2711, Section 3), he said, allows for church courts to fix penalties over a wide range.
Fisher also said that the penalty of termination was appropriate because Schaefer had, both in word and in deed, said that he could not uphold the Discipline in its entirety. United Methodist ordained elders, he said, vow to uphold the Discipline, and Schaefer had broken those vows.
“The appellant (Schaefer) argues that no one could uphold the entire Discipline,” Fisher said. “Are we to say that thousands of pastors have answered this question dishonestly?”
Fisher said that it was the church’s opinion that the appeal shouldn’t be heard at all, and he requested a dismissal of the appeal and an affirmation of the church court’s ruling in its entirety.
Campbell asked the committee that they uphold the 30-day suspension, but that they declare the defrocking “null and void and of no effect.”
If reinstated, Schaefer will have his credentials returned to him and will be called “the Rev.” again. He will, however, not be reappointed to the Iona United Methodist Church since a new pastor will be appointed to that church July 1, Schaefer said.
“I sense that the (committee) knows that this decision will have an impact on how we decide in the future, not only at trials but what we do with the Discipline as we get to our 2016 General Conference,” Schaefer said. “It will have an impact. This would be a great, symbolic gesture and sign for the church that the church is considering change.”
If the appeals committee upholds the trial court’s November decision, Campbell said he would appeal it to the Judicial Council, the church’s highest court. Both sides in the case have the right to appeal the decision to the Judicial Council, he said.
Jurisdictional conferences, which meet every four years, elect the members of their respective jurisdictions’ appeals committees.
The appeals committee — made up of four ordained clergy members, one diaconal minister, one full-time local pastor and three lay people — is now in deliberations in the case.
Alsgaard is managing editor of the UMConnection in the United Methodist Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference.