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Request anticipates constitutionality questions

Phil Roughton, a delegate from the Florida Annual Conference, receives his credentials to the United Methodist General Conference from Nancy Sherman, a local volunteer, on opening day of the 2008 assembly. A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.

The Rev. Kathy Noble*
April 24, 2008 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)

Petitions that would mandate the membership in decision-making bodies of The United Methodist Church have resulted in the 2008 General Conference's first request to the church's Judicial Council.

Near the end of its business session late in the evening of April 23, delegates voted to ask the denomination's "supreme court" for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of "various petitions that require mandatory membership levels for select groups of people" in the General Conference and on denominational boards and agencies.

Kevin Goodwin, delegate from the Peninsula-Delaware Annual (regional) Conference, asked for the ruling in light of previous Judicial Council decisions where language about the makeup of membership using words such as "required," "shall" and “must" were ruled unconstitutional, while statements saying membership of certain groups was "recommended" has been upheld.

One specific petition to which he referred would require that at least one person with a disability be included on each general agency's governing board. Another would require that 30 percent of the total membership of the general agencies be from central conferences (outside the United States). Other petitions would require no less than 20 percent of the delegates to General Conference be youth or young adults.

Goodwin said the request for the decision was not to prevent committees from discussing the petitions but to secure guidelines as to what might be unconstitutional action by a General Conference working in a shortened time frame --¬ 10 days rather than the 12 of past sessions.

Officially welcoming the delegates to what she termed their "$6 million dollar meeting," the Rev. Gail Murphy-Geiss, chair of the Commission on General Conference, urged the delegates to consider favorably proposals to reduce the maximum size of the assembly from the present 1,000 to 600. The reduction would be a "significant change which we think will lead to equally big improvements" in terms of "better relationships, richer conversations and, in the end, a holier gathering that Wesley might recognize," she said.

It would also be less costly, she said, noting that the $6 million expenditure for the 2008 General Conference would educate 26,000 girls in the Congo or provide 500,000 malaria tests across Africa.

"We have much to celebrate," Murphy-Geiss said as she marked the conference's opening on the 40th anniversary of the day that The United Methodist Church was created in nearby Dallas, "but we are here to plan 'A Future with Hope.'"

Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Houston Area presided as the delegates adopted the rules under which they will work and participated in sensitivity training.

Debate on a ban on cell phone use during plenary and legislative committee sessions was limited to a motion by Pat Meadows, delegate from North Alabama, that the restriction be limited to audible use.

Meadows' amendment was referred to the Rules Committee for a report on April 24 as was one offered by Joe Kilpatrick, North Georgia, to prohibit submission, publication or consideration of any petition that "censures or demeans an individual or their character."

"We should not expect a legislative committee to act as a judge and jury."

Also referred was the motion of the Rev. Bryan D. Collier of Mississippi to allow delegates requesting them to receive the Advance Daily Christian Advocate in digital form only.

Delegates did agree to move the deadline for submitting petitions from 150 to 180 days before the opening of General Conference, beginning with the 2012 session. Janet Stephenson, chair of the Commission on the Plan of Organization and Rules, said the earlier deadline was requested by the United Methodist Publishing House to facilitate printing and distribution of the Advance Daily Christian Advocate in several languages.

The commission will also consider a proposal to study and report to the 2012 General Conference on the possibility of codifying The Book of Discipline.

Sensitivity training for delegates ended the evening. Erin Hawkins, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, and M. Garlinda Burton, the Commission on the Status and Role of Women’s chief executive, reminded the delegates "how important it is to reflect and respond to the whole community of God as we do our work."

Thwarting a person's participation because of race, gender or ethnicity, they said, creates "blocks to hearing what God has to say."

The 2008 General Conference of The United Methodist Church opened April 23 and continues through May 2 in Fort Worth.

*Noble is editor of Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine, publications of United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Kathy Noble, e-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

Phone calls can be made to the General Conference Newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 698-4405 until May 3. Afterward, call United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470.

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