UM Court Docket Includes Same-Sex Union Resolutions in Cal-Nevada, Cal-Pac

January 23, 2009

A UMNS Report

By Neill Caldwell*


The United Methodist Church's supreme court will address several high-profile issues when it meets in April, including the performance of same-gender marriage ceremonies, the proposed George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University, and the membership process for people transferring from other denominations.


Six of the eight items before the Judicial Council relate to bishops' decisions of law, which are automatically reviewed by the nine-member panel. The council will meet April 22-25 in Denver.

Two items deal with resolutions passed by the 2008 California-Nevada Annual Conference and 2008 California-Pacific Annual Conference in support of clergy who are willing to celebrate same-sex marriage or union ceremonies. In November, California voters approved a ban on same-sex marriages after the state supreme court declared such marriages legal in May.


The United Methodist Church, while affirming all people as persons "of sacred worth," considers the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." Its Book of Discipline prohibits pastors from conducting such union ceremonies. Those denominational standards were again affirmed by the 2008 General Conference, the church's top legislative assembly.


While the Discipline forbids United Methodist pastors from performing same-sex marriages or union ceremonies, a group of retired clergy in California offered to perform those services following their legalization in that state.


Bishop Beverly J. Shamana, now retired.At its 2008 meeting, the California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference passed a resolution commending those retired clergy for their compassion. That was followed by a request to presiding Bishop Beverly Shamana for a ruling as to whether or not the resolution violated the Discipline. Shamana said in her response that the resolution "steps over a disciplinary line" and was "void and of no effect." Her decision automatically went to the Judicial Council for review, and the council said in October that the record of the case lacked the documentation needed to make a decision.
(Now-retired Bishop Beverly J. Shamana is shown presiding over California-Nevada's 2008 Annual Conference Session in photo at right, by Paul "Spud" Hilton.)


Meeting the same week in June, the California-Pacific Annual Conference approved three measures that support same-gender couples who want to marry. The resolution in question, which dealt with the California clergy response, stated that "while we recognize that we are governed by the Book of Discipline ... we support those pastors who conscientiously respond to the needs of their parishes by celebrating same-gender marriages, and we envision compassion and understanding in any resulting disciplinary actions."


Bishop Mary Ann Swenson ruled that the resolution was permissible. "The action called for in the resolution can be characterized as a pastoral response on the part of the annual conference. ... What the resolution does not call for is for pastors to violate the provisions of the Discipline governing the celebration of same-gender marriages. In fact, the resolution is specific in acknowledging the authority of the Discipline. ... The resolution does not call for or encourage violation of the Discipline; it does provide for a response that is pastoral (compassionate) in nature."

Bush center

The council will review a decision of law from Bishop Robert Hayes at last summer's South Central Jurisdictional Conference regarding use of property at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for a presidential library. Hayes ruled that a request for a decision about the school's right to lease campus property to the Bush Foundation was "improper, moot and hypothetical."


Hayes made his ruling after examining actions of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference in favor of SMU's lease agreement for the President George W. Bush Presidential Center. The jurisdiction owns the private school, and its bylaws require the church to approve any sale or lease of campus land. Jurisdictional conference delegates voted 158-118 on July 17 to affirm the lease for the Bush presidential library, museum and policy institute.


The question put to the bishop asked if the lease agreement violated the Book of Discipline, specifically Paragraph 2503.4, which requires all United Methodist property to be "kept, maintained ... for the benefit of The United Methodist Church and subject to the usages and the Discipline of The United Methodist Church."


Hayes said the request went beyond church law and involved secular, corporate and real estate law. The bishop also said the request was framed in a way that was "hypothetical and speculative."


"The request for a decision of law is posed in a manner that asks if things were done correctly," he told United Methodist News Service last fall. "And they were. Everything was in order."


Critics of the plan to build a Bush center at SMU have questioned the appropriateness of linking the Bush presidency with the United Methodist school, saying that many policies of the Bush administration were contrary to United Methodist teaching. University officials have expressed their agreement with Hayes' decision.

(In photo above: Southern Methodist University in Dallas, chosen as the site of the George W. Bush presidential library. A UMNS photo courtesy of Southern Methodist University.)


Membership vows

In another docket item, the Alaska Conference is asking whether Book of Discipline Paragraphs 214 and 225 are constitutional under Paragraph 4, Article IV, of the church's Constitution. Paragraph 4 states the inclusiveness of the church includes all persons; Paragraph 214 deals with the eligibility of members, saying that "all people may attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments and become members of any local church in the connection." Paragraph 225 deals with the process of transferring into The United Methodist Church from another denomination.


The Judicial Council ruled in Decision 1032 that "Paragraphs 214 and 225 are permissive and do not mandate receipt into membership of all persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows." The pastor-in-charge of a local church has the power to determine "a person's readiness to receive the vows of membership," the council said in Decision 1032.


In its fall meeting in Minneapolis, the Judicial Council deferred the Alaska case because the court lacked the proper annual conference minutes. The council said that a brief submitted by Alaska Conference Lay Leader Lonnie Brooks was not a suitable substitute for the official Annual Conference record needed to allow the court to determine jurisdiction and rule on the case.


An oral hearing on this item was held during the council's fall meeting. Brooks was the only speaker addressing the council on this case at the oral hearing.

The twist in the case is that Paragraph 225 has changed since the Judicial Council last met, with new language becoming effective Jan. 1. The language was changed by the 2008 General Conference from: "a member in good standing in any Christian denomination who has been baptized and who desires to unite with The United Methodist Church may be received as either a baptized or a professing member" to "shall be received ... "


Decisions for review

Other cases on the docket:

  • A case from the West Ohio Conference questions the meaning of Paragraph 405.2c, adopted by the 2008 General Conference, concerning the relationship of the Interjurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the General Conference. The paragraph deals with the formula for determining the number of bishops within a jurisdiction. The council also deferred this case to the spring session because of lack of official minutes.
  • A review of a decision of law by Bishop Swenson in the California-Pacific Conference related to a conference clergy benefit change.

    A review of a decision of law by Bishop Shamana in the California-Nevada Conference not to recognize the lay credentials of an individual who said his local church was discontinued without regard to disciplinary procedures.

    A review of a decision of law that Bishop Warner Brown issued while presiding over the Rocky Mountain Conference last summer, in which the bishop did not recognize a request as being proper because it was not introduced during the business session of the annual conference. (Bishop Brown, at right, now heads the California-Nevada Annual Conference.)


*Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate and covers the Judicial Council for United Methodist News Service.