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Judicial Council sends gay pastor case back to committee


A sidebar, UMNS story #512, is available with this report.

By Joretta Purdue*

SAN DIEGO (UMNS) - The United Methodist Church's supreme court has sent a case involving an openly gay clergywoman back to an appellate committee, with instructions for that group to follow the denomination's Book of Discipline.

The case involves the Rev. Karen Dammann, a member of the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference, who told Bishop Elias Galvan in a February 2001 letter that she was living in a "partnered, covenanted, homosexual relationship."

The United Methodist Judicial Council, meeting Oct. 22-24, said the rules in the Book of Discipline must be upheld throughout the church's judicial process. The book forbids the ordination and appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

"Where the agreed facts concede a practice which the Discipline declares to be incompatible with Christian teaching, reasonable grounds exist to bring a bill of charges and specifications, and it is an egregious error of church law not to bring such a bill of charges and specifications," the council said.

The council's decision reversed an earlier decision by the Western Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals and set aside the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference Committee on Investigation's vote not to certify a bill of charges in the case of the Rev. Karen Dammann. The case was remanded to the appellate committee with instructions that it be sent back to the conference committee on investigation for a new hearing.

Bishop Elias G. Galvan, resident bishop of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, where Dammann is a clergy member, filed a complaint against Dammann based on the letter she wrote to him in 2001. In her letter, Dammann asked to return from family leave to active ministry.

A July 24, 2002, hearing before the conference committee on investigation didn't produce the five votes necessary to bring charges. Likewise, the jurisdictional committee on appeals was split too narrowly to overrule the conference committee.

Judicial Council member Sally Curtis AsKew added a concurring opinion in which she said that while she agreed that the decision reflects current church law in the Book of Discipline, she felt it necessary to state "that I do disagree with the pronouncements on homosexuality contained in our present Discipline."

No dissenting opinion was issued by the eight council members present. A ninth, Sally Geis, remained at home following surgery.

The Judicial Council held oral hearings on this matter and on two docket items from the California-Pacific Annual Conference.

Several items from that annual conference concerned the administrative and judicial processes affecting clergy. In one of these, the council said that a written request by district superintendents - to put a clergyperson on involuntary leave - does not constitute a complaint that would activate either process.

In a related item, the council ruled that at the start of the supervisory process, a respondent has the right to seek and keep a copy of the complaint against him or her and any supporting material. Two people from the California-Pacific Annual Conference expressed their understandings about both these issues in oral hearings before the council deliberated.

Another related request was decided as follows: "Where administrative or judicial proceedings are pending, a clergyperson has the right to select, and when warranted change, his or her advocate. All persons involved in administrative or judicial proceedings are bound by confidentiality."

A fourth item from the same conference related to the rights of "local pastors," a group of clergy whose ministerial credentials are tied to the charge where they are appointed. The item was deferred to the council's spring session, which will be at the site of General Conference in Pittsburgh.

In a declaratory decision, the council advised the East Ohio Annual Conference that the Discipline allows local pastors to become elders without having a bachelor's degree if they meet all other requirements. Local pastors have specific educational requirements set forth in Paragraph 315.6 of the 2000 Book of Discipline, the council said. They do not need to complete a bachelor's degree to become probationary members and be commissioned in the annual conference.

Kansas West Annual Conference had asked about the legality of a plan the conference adopted to compensate women pastors for past gender-based inequities. While the council saw no illegality in the concept, the conference was directed to amend the plan to take into account individual performance. The amended plan must have the council's approval before it can go into effect.

Several docket items grew out of bishops' decisions of law in the various annual conferences. When bishops respond to questions about church law during the annual conference sessions, their decisions automatically go to the Judicial Council for review.

The council affirmed Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey's decision that a question about applying the church's open meeting rule to the clergy session of the South Carolina Annual Conference was improper because it was not germane to the deliberation of a specific conference action.

In a West Michigan Annual Conference matter, the council told Bishop Linda Lee that she had no authority to remove or renominate people on the conference board of ordained ministry during the term for which they were elected. A pastor while under suspension continues to serve on the board because the Discipline does not provide for removal, the council decided.

The council agreed with Bishop Jonathan Keaton that the East Ohio Annual Conference has the authority to redesignate its Pension Reserve Account as the Conference Pension and Health Reserve Account, but the court said the conference must first fund its pre-1982 past service account (for clergy with service prior to 1982) to meet the donor intent of the 1988-92 fund campaign, the proceeds of which were placed in the reserve account.

The council affirmed Bishop Sharon A. Brown Christopher's decision of law that the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference housing policy for conference staff does not violate the church's constitution and laws.

The council also affirmed Bishop Susan W. Hassinger's decision, in the New England Annual Conference, that a purported question of law from the board of the Houlton (Maine) United Methodist Church was moot and hypothetical, and not to be answered, because it did not pertain to the business of the annual conference session.

The East Ohio Annual Conference Sexual Ethics Policy for Clergy was found to be in compliance as passed at the 2003 conference session, and the conference received permission for implementation.

In another docket item from the Western New York annual Conference, the council noted that it does not have jurisdiction because the matter was not a question of law but pertained to a parliamentary procedure.

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*Purdue is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Washington.

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