The Rev. Frank Schaefer will remain a clergyman in The United Methodist Church.
In a ruling made public Oct. 27, the denomination’s top court upheld a June decision by a regional appeals committee to reinstate Schaefer’s ministerial credentials, modifying the penalty imposed upon the Pennsylvania pastor after he was found guilty last November of violating church law by performing a same-sex wedding for his son in 2007.
“The Judicial Council upon careful review of the decision of the Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals in the matter of the Rev. Frank Schaefer and the questions of law presented by the counsel for the church finds there are no errors in the application of the church law and judicial decisions,” said Decision 1270. “The penalty as modified by the Committee on Appeals stands.”
In its decision, Judicial Council also recognized the fact that “some within the church do not support this outcome today.”
The ruling came during the Judicial Council’s Oct. 22-25 fall meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, and followed an oral hearing on the case. The Rev. Christopher Fisher, who served as counsel for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference during Schaefer’s trial, appealed the decision of the committee on appeals to Judicial Council.
Penalty imposed by trial court
Fisher raised a question before the council on whether Schaefer lost the right to appeal his case by disobeying the penalty imposed on him.
During the Nov. 19, 2013, penalty phase of the trial, the full penalty imposed was an immediate 30-day suspension, followed by a written report to and interview with the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Board of Ordained Ministry “regarding his call and his willingness to uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety.” Not being able to do so would evoke a call to surrender his credentials to the annual conference.
Schaefer’s written report concluded with his commitment “to working together with my clergy colleagues, providing a ministry to all people under my care, continuing to advocate for our LGBT community within the UM Church while using proper channels toward changing the discriminatory language and provisions in our Book of Discipline.”
When asked, Schaefer told the board of ordained ministry he could not uphold the Discipline in its entirety and would not voluntarily surrender his credentials. The board’s chair then said Schaefer’s ministerial credentials would be taken from him.
The trial court did not describe a voluntary surrender of credentials as a requirement, the Judicial Council found, nor is there any record that Schaefer “engaged in any sort of flagrant disobedience to the trial court penalty.”
‘Mixing and matching’ penalties
The Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals used two previous Judicial Council decisions — Decision 240 and Decision 725 — as a basis for its June 24 decision that the trial court’s “compound penalty” improperly involved the “mixing and matching of penalties that are designed to be distinct.” One of those was a penalty based on a future possibility rather than a past or present act.
In general, a trial court “may stipulate conditions” for ending a suspension as part of the penalty of suspension, Judicial Council said.
In this case, however, the council said “the trial court combined aspects of two discrete and distinct alternatives, suspending the Rev. Schaefer for 30 days and then crafting a subsequent proceeding, in which another body, namely the Board of Ordained Ministry, was given the power to change the suspension to termination by the surrendering of his credentials, depending on what assurances the Rev. Schaefer was able to provide regarding his future conduct.”
That action violated church law and was “the primary basis for changing the penalty of the trial court,” the council said. The Northeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals is granted the authority to do so by the Discipline if the penalty “is not higher than that affixed at the hearing or trial.”
The decision acknowledges the tensions within The United Methodist Church on issues related to homosexuality.
The ruling notes that some may see the appellate committee’s decision as “a flagrant disregard for parts of the Discipline” and some “may have wished the trial court’s penalty had been differently constructed so as to meet the requirements of the Discipline and impose a harsher penalty.”
However, the Judicial Council pointed out, its task is to “review the process and decisions of the trial court and the appellate process in order to determine if any parts of the Book of Discipline were violated or were interpreted in error.”
The Rev. Kabamba Kiboko, a council member, was not at the Memphis meeting. The Rev. Timothy K. Bruster, first clergy alternate, took part in the decision.