UMC Judicial Council revisits language of earlier decision
UMC Judicial Council revisits language of earlier decision


Monday, April 29, 2002
Judicial Council revisits language of earlier decision
By Joretta Purdue*

INDIANAPOLIS (UMNS) - A decision by the United Methodist Judicial Council to revise an earlier ruling leaves Bishop Elias Galvan of Seattle with more discretion on the issue of suspending a clergywoman whose credentials are under review.

In question was whether the suspension of a clergyperson whose ministerial credentials are under review is mandatory or optional.

The new decision brings an earlier ruling into line with the denomination’s 2000 Book of Discipline by substituting the word "may" from the cited passage of the book for the word "shall," used in the earlier decision. Three council members signed a dissenting opinion in the current decision, saying suspension was required by the facts presented in the case. The case originated last year in the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference, which Galvan oversees.

Meeting in its spring session April 24-25, the denomination's equivalent of the Supreme Court decided to alter the wording of its previous decision to accurately reflect that of the church’s book of laws and procedures.

The relatively short docket – seven items, of which one was withdrawn – enabled the council to conclude its business a day earlier than expected. Spring storms prevented the Rev. C. Rex Bevins from attending, leaving the court with eight members for the session.

Last year, the council had been asked by the Pacific Northwest Conference if a conflict exists between the denomination’s prohibition of "self-avowed practicing homosexual" clergy from being appointed to serve a congregation and the rule that requires the ministerial appointment of all clergy in good standing.

In its decision, the council held that the two rules are not in conflict but that a bishop could not act unilaterally to withhold appointment of a clergyperson. Rather, the standing or status of an ordained pastor is determined only by the annual conference in accordance with fair process, a set of procedures designed to guarantee the rights of the clergyperson.

The council's decision last October also noted that the specifics of this case were enough to subject the person to review of her ministerial credentials. Earlier in the year, the Rev. Karen Dammann had sent a letter to Galvan saying she was living in a covenanted same-sex relationship. Dammann was not mentioned by name in either Judicial Council decision.

Galvan and another conference official subsequently sought the council's reconsideration of its directive, contained in Decision No. 920, to suspend the clergywoman.

The new decision does not alter the earlier decision except to change the direction that the bishop "shall place the clergy person on suspension" while proceedings are conducted to "may place the clergyperson on suspension," in keeping with the wording of the Book of Discipline.

Three council members – the Rev. Keith D. Boyette, Mary A. Daffin and James Holsinger – dissented, saying that suspension is required in the specified case. They also said that the earlier decision "does not say that the bishop must suspend every person against whom any type of complaint is made. Decision 920 is limited to the factual situation set forth in the request for declaratory decision."

A request for a declaratory decision from the churchwide Commission on General Conference asked, in effect, which groups may submit petitions to the General Conference, the church's highest legislative body. The commission also asked if it has the responsibility to interpret the meaning of a Book of Discipline reference to "any organization" of the United Methodist Church. The question arose in regard to the submission of petitions to General Conference.

The council ruled that the commission does not have the authority to define the phrase "as being limited to official organizations" of the denomination. The Book of Discipline provides legislative access to both official and unofficial groups within the church, the council said.

Another case involved the North Carolina Annual Conference's approval last June of a motion to appeal a Judicial Council decision. North Carolina members wanted to appeal the court’s ruling that a request from the conference's 2000 session did not meet the requisites for a declaratory decision.

"There is no disciplinary provision for appealing a decision of the Judicial Council," the council said. "All decisions of the Judicial Council are final." Four members used a concurring opinion to point to the inadequacies of the original request, reminding petitioners that when questioning legality, they need to cite a particular paragraph in the Book of Discipline that relates to the matter.

The concurring members – Rodolfo C. Beltran, the Rev. John G. Corry, Sally Brown Geis and James Holsinger – said they believed the North Carolina Annual Conference intended to ask for a decision on the legality of a resolution that it adopted in 2000, calling for seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit on the issue of homosexuality through study and prayer and through the use of the official study materials of the denomination. "There is nothing in this resolution that makes it illegal or that is contrary to the provisions of the 2000 Discipline," they wrote.

The court also reviewed North Carolina Bishop Marion Edwards' decision of law regarding a question raised in the conference’s 2001 session. The question dealt with whether funds of any unit within the church could be given to any organization that "promotes the acceptance of homosexuality by authorizing any portion of its property or buildings to be used to celebrate 'same sex' unions in a service resembling a marriage service or in a quasi service." The council agreed with the bishop that the question did not relate to business before the conference and was moot.

In another case, the council upheld Edwards' ruling that a series of questions related to procedures for handling complaints against clergy was moot and hypothetical because the questions did not refer to any action before the conference.

All bishops' decisions of law – responses to questions asked during the business session of the annual conference – are sent to the Judicial Council for review.

The court gave a similar review to decisions by Bishop Hae-Jong Kim of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference related to questions about conference structure. The council sometimes affirmed the bishop, sometimes overruled him and sometimes found that his decision that a particular question was moot and hypothetical was incorrect but that the bishop correctly ruled that the question was factually untrue.

The council retained jurisdiction and said it expects to see the complete conference structure and rules at its fall session in Baltimore. The court also specified that district superintendents and members of the conference staff are barred from membership on the conference committee on episcopacy; the conference rules permitting the conference council to meet in executive session violate the Book of Discipline; and the conference's council on finance and administration cannot have voting members who also are members or employees of another church unit that is considered for funds from the conference budget.

Before the council session began, a request related to whether annual conferences are required to provide for archival and historical matters was withdrawn by the petitioner. The Judicial Council also denied three other requests for reconsideration of earlier decisions.

*Purdue is news director for United Methodist News Service in Washington.

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