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Church court says Connectional Table can include ethnic caucus representatives

Nov. 2, 2004

By Neill Caldwell*

PHILADELPHIA (UMNS) – The United Methodist Judicial Council affirmed the denomination’s new Connectional Table as a "new and different entity" of the church — but one that must follow constitutional rules in terms of inclusiveness, including representation from racial ethnic caucuses.

In its fall meeting Oct. 27-29, the denomination’s supreme court issued decisions on 16 docket items and deferred one until its meeting in April. Deferred was a decision on 2004 General Conference Petition 40325, which deals with powers of the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits. Council members said they would seek more information before making a ruling.

Two Judicial Council decisions dealt with the Connectional Table, created last spring by General Conference as a way of bringing the denomination’s ministries and money together at the same table. The Connectional Table will begin operating Jan. 1.

General Conference asked the Judicial Council to rule on whether the Connectional Table must meet the same requirements for membership as the church’s general agencies under the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The assembly also asked whether the Book of Discipline allows the inclusion of caucuses as organizations permitted to place members on the Connectional Table.

The nine-member council stated that the Connectional Table was "created as a new and different entity, not as a new general agency." At the same time, "the provisions for membership must be consistent with the Constitution (Paragraph 4)." The council also noted that an amendment to designate the Connectional Table as a general agency was "intentionally rejected by a vote of 761 to 128" at General Conference.

The second question related to whether the Connectional Table should include representatives from racial ethnic caucuses. The council ruled that "enacted legislation providing for the nomination of prospective members to the Connectional Table from racial ethnic caucuses does not violate any disciplinary provision and is not unconstitutional."

In its rationale, the council said that "the United Methodist Church has been and seeks to be sensitive to the inclusiveness of racial and ethnic persons. Moreover, the Constitution mandates inclusiveness in the church." It continued: "The stated purpose of the Connectional Table is to be the visioning body for the United Methodist Church. The Discipline permits the whole church to be represented at the table."

Ed Tomlinson, assistant to the bishop in the North Georgia Annual Conference, spoke in favor of including the ethnic caucuses during oral arguments before the court. "The membership of ethnic communities is working to strengthen the church," he said. "It is not out of character with the Discipline to include these caucuses."

Responding to another request from General Conference, the council ruled that Calendar Item 1514 – dealing with doctrinal standards of the church – violated Restrictive Rules I, II and V in the Book of Discipline and therefore was "null and void."

Responding to another question from the General Conference, the court ruled that lay people may not serve on annual conference committees on investigation – nullifying an action of the assembly. "Calendar Item 1167, giving lay professing members the right of voice and vote on the committee on investigation, is unconstitutional," the court said. The Book of Discipline restricts matters of character and conference relationships to clergy in full connection and members of the board of ordained ministry, the council noted.

The final question related to 2004 General Conference was on the constitutionality of Calendar Item 1017, which would have made an annual conference’s scouting coordinator a lay member of that conference. The council ruled that the addition was unconstitutional, since the church’s Constitution doesn’t include the scouting coordinator in its definition of the annual conference’s membership.

Health care concerns

The council dealt with two items related to heath care benefits for domestic partners.

The West Michigan Annual (regional) Conference asked for "a declaratory decision on the meaning, application and effect of the Discipline to the addition of domestic partner benefits to the conference benefits health policy."

In oral arguments, David Lundquist, former top staff executive of the General Council on Ministries and a lay member of the West Michigan Conference, said the Judicial Council had limited jurisdiction in what should be an annual conference decision. "This is really a question of whether the annual conference has the authority to determine its own health plan," he said.

The council ruled that it did not have jurisdiction in the matter because West Michigan’s request did not refer to a specific paragraph of the Book of Discipline, "which is required for a declaratory decision."

The second case was more complex. It concerned a review of Bishop Susan M. Morrison’s decision of law in the Troy Annual Conference concerning a resolution, "Providing Health Care Coverage for Domestic Partners," which the annual conference approved June 11. The petition directed the conference committee on health insurance to make "all reasonable efforts to find a way to extend health insurance coverage to domestic partners of employees of the Troy Annual Conference and its churches … and to implement such coverage as soon as possible." The resolution asked the committee to petition the churchwide Board of Pension and Health Benefits to "make insurance coverage more inclusive and available."

The council ruled that "an annual conference may investigate and study any issue not expressly prohibited by the Discipline. An annual conference may also advocate with the general church boards and agencies for changes in policies and procedures." However, the council ruled that the bishop erred in approving the portion of the petition that directs the conference committee on health insurance to implement coverage "without prior specific and affirmative approval of the annual conference. Annual conferences may not delegate authority reserved to the annual conference to another body."

Marriage amendment

The Judicial Council affirmed the decision of law by Bishop G. Lindsey Davis of North Georgia that a resolution approved by the annual conference in support of a marriage amendment to Georgia’s state constitution did not violate the Book of Discipline. The resolution originated in the South Georgia Annual Conference and expressed support for "laws which define marriage as existing only between a man and a woman." The North Georgia Annual Conference approved it on June 18.

Conference structures

The Judicial Council ruled that a revised plan of structure for the Northern Illinois Annual Conference complies with church law and may be implemented.

Likewise, the council ruled that the Virginia Annual Conference’s organizational plan, which was approved during 2004 Annual Conference, was consistent with the Book of Discipline. The Rev. Keith Boyette, a council member and clergy member of the Virginia Conference, recused himself on this case.

Clergy issues

Acting on another item from Virginia, the Judicial Council reversed a conference action that placed a clergy member on involuntary leave of absence. The court remanded the case back to the annual conference "with directions to reinstate the clergy member to the same status he held prior to the 2004 clergy session of the annual conference."

The clergy member had been notified in May of the district superintendent’s decision to place him on involuntary leave of absence and to seek a waiver of a 90-day rule. On June 2, the conference relations committee voted to place the clergy member on involuntary leave and recommend a waiver of the 90-day requirement. Five days later, the pastor informed the bishop of his request for voluntary retirement. However, at the clergy session of the annual conference that month, a motion to place the member on involuntary leave was approved.

In its ruling, the court said, "The member is entitled to immediate appointment and to all salary and benefits retroactive to June 14, 2004. The annual conference is required to act on the clergy member’s request for voluntary retirement. In the event the annual conference chooses to deny the request for voluntary retirement, the member is then entitled to fair process on the issue of involuntary leave of absence…"

The Judicial Council approved the method of implementing the Kansas West Annual Conference plan to remedy gender-based inequity in clergy compensation. The plan was required to be reviewed and approved under a previous ruling, in which the court said that while the plan was "permissible under the Discipline, its method of implementation must not result in further discrimination on the basis of gender."

The council said it had no jurisdiction to rule on a request from the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference for "a declaratory decision on the authority of a bishop to overrule the Judicial Council and deny an individual’s request for a jury trial." In its ruling, the council said it would "not render decisions that are merely advisory or that decide abstract or uncertain questions based upon hypothetical facts."

The council also said it did not have jurisdiction in the case of a bishop’s decision of law in the North Central New York Conference concerning approval of a candidate for commissioning as a probationary member by the clergy session. "Such (parliamentary) questions are the prerogative of the presiding officer and are appealable to the annual conference," the court said.

The Judicial Council voided a decision of law by Bishop Ernest S. Lyght related to a New York Conference elder’s right to trial. "A review of the minutes of the closing session of the New York Annual Conference of June 5, 2004, reveals that there was no regular business, consideration or discussion before the conference to which the request for ruling of law was germane," the court ruled. "... Therefore, the request for a ruling of law was moot and hypothetical and should not have been decided by the bishop." The court reviews all decisions of law made by bishops during conference gatherings. Council member Beth Capen, a New York Conference lay member, recused herself on this case.

The council received a request for declaratory decision from the Wisconsin Annual Conference on the constitutionality of Paragraph 346.1 of the Discipline, dealing with the discontinuance of local pastors. The council was asked to rule whether the paragraph conflicts with the church’s Constitution, which reserves the right of all clergy to trial with the right of appeal. The court ruled that the paragraph is constitutional.

As part of the same docket item, the council also examined Paragraph 356.1 to determine whether allowing a bishop or a district committee on ordained ministry to not recommend continuation of a local pastor’s license conflicts with the Constitution, which gives the annual conference the authority to vote on the character and conference relations of its clergy. The court concluded that the paragraph is constitutional.

*Caldwell is a freelance writer residing in High Point, N.C.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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