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Top court looks at requests to review decisions


7:00 P.M. EST May 3, 2011 | DETROIT (UMNS)

The United Methodist Judicial Council says it is not required to respond to every request to reconsider previous rulings. A 2008 UMNS file photo by Neill Caldwell.
The United Methodist Judicial Council says it is not required to respond to every request to reconsider previous rulings. A 2008 UMNS file photo by Neill Caldwell.
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The United Methodist Church’s top court says it is not obliged to respond to every request for reconsideration of a 2005 decision related to whether a pastor can deny local church membership to a gay or lesbian person.

In Memorandum 1187, related to a petition from the denomination’s California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference, the Judicial Council noted that it has received numerous requests to reconsider Decision 1032 “on its own motion” but is not required to do so.

That petition was among those on the docket for the council’s April 27-29 meeting in Detroit. Other reconsiderations under discussion included another look at an October ruling on due process for a clergy member in the Baltimore-Washington Conference and a request related to procedures in the Philippines Central Conference.

Judicial Council Decision No. 1032 related to the case of the Rev. Ed Johnson, the senior pastor at South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church, who was placed on an involuntary leave of absence by the Virginia Annual (regional) Conference after refusing to admit a self-avowed, practicing gay man into membership in the church.

When the council ruled that the pastor in charge of a local church has authority to determine a layperson's readiness for membership, some groups and annual conferences protested, and opposition has continued to the present. However, legislation filed in response to the case did not pass when General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, met in 2008.

In response to the California-Pacific petition, Judicial Council pointed out that changes in the church’s constitution and Book of Discipline since 2004 make any reconsideration of Decision 1032 “moot and irrelevant” in regard to language about transfer of membership from another denomination.

“Notwithstanding the apparent eagerness of The United Methodist Church to continue discussing the topics that were at issue in Decision 1032, reconsideration of the decision itself is moot,” the council wrote. “We cannot make a determination about the constitutionality or legitimacy of legislative language on which the 2008 Discipline is silent.”

In a concurring opinion, Jon R. Gray, a Judicial Council member, noted that the court has been asked to review the decision at least 10 times. “In many instances, the requests were presented without factual context and without the prerequisites necessary to confer jurisdiction,” he said.

The council has no power “to rewrite portions of the Discipline at the request of anyone who prefers different provisions,” he pointed out. “Under our system of checks and balances, the General Conference is the only appropriate body authorized to fix and define the conditions, privileges, and duties of church membership.”

Angela Brown, Susan  Henry-Crowe and Katherine Austin Mahle joined Gray in his concurrence.

Due process reconsideration

Officials from the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference asked for reconsideration of Judicial Council Decision 1156, in which the council ruled the conference had violated due process rights of the Rev. Helen Steiner Smith, one of its clergy members. Conference officials cited several errors of fact in the decision.

Smith had been suspended from her position as pastor of Benevola United Methodist Church in Boonsboro, Md., in May 2009 after allegedly failing to carry out pastoral duties by not fully disclosing her husband’s status as a registered child sex offender.

At issue was whether the conference had followed proper procedures, as outlined in the Book of Discipline, in suspending Smith. In oral hearings at both the October and April meetings, Washington Area Bishop John Schol and other conference representatives, along with Smith and her advocate, the Rev. Laura Easto, made presentations to the council.

In its reconsideration of the case, Decision 1189, the Judicial Council noted that it does not make findings of facts nor “resolve disputed factual issues,” and it could only base its judgments on the official Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference minutes.

Actions by the 2008 General Conference “made significant changes in the leave processes governing changes in conference relations,” and the council found that Schol did not refer an administrative complaint regarding Smith to the conference board of ordained ministry, as required. The conference was instructed to comply fully with the terms of the council’s previous decision.

“We cannot make a determination about … legislative language on which the 2008 Discipline is silent.”

“Deviations from disciplinary process fall below acceptable standards of fair process, even when undertaken in good faith or for the sake of convenience or efficiency,” the decision said.

In a concurring opinion, Gray noted that the “candid admissions” made by conference officials during the reconsideration “are worthy of respect” but not a substitute “for adherence to disciplinary process.”

The 2008 Book of Discipline allows the bishop and district superintendents to request an involuntary leave of absence without the consent of a clergy member by presenting the member and the conference’s board of ordained ministry with specific reasons for the request in writing. The involuntary leave can be requested when a written or signed complaint is not resolved within 120 days and is referred by the bishop as an administrative complaint, the council said.

Since Judicial Council issued Decision 1156, it “has become painfully apparent” that some members in the church superintendency are not making the required referral of an administrative complaint, the new decision said.

The court is encouraging all annual conferences and boards of ordained ministry to review such cases since 2008, to “ensure that full and fair process” was followed.

Philippines reconsideration

The Judicial Council denied several requests for reconsideration of previous decisions related to the handling of a complaint against a bishop in the Philippines Central Conference and questions regarding the 2010 session of the Middle Philippines Annual Conference.

One of the requests concerned Decision 1162, which asked for a reconsideration of a previous ruling, in which the council affirmed a decision of law by Bishop Daniel Arichea upholding the validity of the Feb. 22-25, 2010, Middle Philippines Annual Conference session at Wesleyan University in the Philippines.

A concurring opinion in Memorandum 1183 on the denial of reconsideration of Decision 1162 voiced concern over the fact Bishop Lito Tangonan has been suspended six times since December 2009 during an internal dispute within the Philippines church.

“We do not have a complete record of all of the matters in regard to those suspensions, but from the information we have requested and received, it is not clear that fair process has been adequately provided,” the opinion said.

Because of “the lack of a complete record in regard to the suspensions,” the Judicial Council does not “have authority to address this matter any further,” the opinion stated.

Six council members signed the concurring opinion: Henry-Crowe, Brown, Mahle, Beth Capen, William B. Lawrence and Jay Arthur Garrison, lay alternate.

Other decisions

In other decisions made at the April meeting, the Judicial Council said in Memorandum 1186 that it had no jurisdiction in a matter related to the process of discontinuing a member of the California-Pacific Conference.

In Memorandum  1188, the council reviewed two decisions of law related to the Rev. Edward Paup regarding the constitutional right of a clergy person to trial. The decisions, made by Denver Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky during the 2010 Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, were vacated.

Full decisions from the April Judicial Council meeting, Nos. 1182-1189, can be found here.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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