Judicial Council to review church-exit rules

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Key points

  • The United Methodist Judicial Council faces multiple questions related to a new church law allowing congregations to exit with property. 
  • Docket items also ask the church court to rule on the deadline to submit legislation to the pandemic-delayed General Conference. 
  • Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nine-member international body is meeting online and periodically releasing decisions. 

In its coming session, The United Methodist Church’s highest court faces multiple questions related to rules for church disaffiliations and deadlines for General Conference legislation.

The Judicial Council plans to start deliberations on its fall 2021 docket on Nov. 23. Since late last year, the pandemic has forced the church court — with nine members from Liberia, Mozambique, Norway and the U.S. — to do its work in a new way. 

Instead of meeting for a few days in one location, the Judicial Council has been meeting online over a period of months and publishing decisions as they are ready. 

This session has no oral hearings scheduled.

More on church court

The Judicial Council, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, has reserve members. 

With the death of Ruben T. Reyes in September, Warren Plowden — first lay alternative — is now participating in the church court’s decision-making. 

General Conference elects the court’s members and alternates. Four members are clergy and five laity. They serve on the church court as volunteers.

See the complete fall 2021 docket.

Most of the 22 items on the fall docket deal with issues raised during the 2020 and 2021 U.S. annual conference seasons. Bishops routinely face questions of law during the sessions at which they preside. The Book of Discipline — the denomination’s policy book — requires that any bishop’s decision of law must go before the Judicial Council for review. 

Prompting the most questions before the court is the Discipline’s new Paragraph 2553 — approved by the 2019 Special General Conference in St. Louis. Passed during the same lawmaking assembly that strengthened church bans against same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy, the church law allows congregations to exit with property “for reasons of conscience” related to homosexuality. 

Paragraph 2553 requires that exiting churches meet certain financial and procedural obligations. It also states that annual conferences — church regional bodies — “may develop additional standard terms that are not inconsistent with the standard form of this paragraph.” 

Since General Conference first took up the legislation for Paragraph 2553, the Judicial Council has faced multiple questions about the disaffiliation law. The court has since ruled the legislation in line with the denomination’s constitution and specified that a simple majority of annual conference voters must ratify any disaffiliation agreement. 

The court determined that the law took effect immediately after the 2019 General Conference

The Judicial Council also ruled that it was unconstitutional for the Commission on the General Conference to nullify the paragraph between sessions of the legislative assembly because of improper voting during the 2019 special session.

Since 2019, dozens of United Methodist churches across the denomination’s theological spectrum have used Paragraph 2553 to depart. 

However, these actions have not ended questions about the new law. In this coming Judicial Council session, six docket items — more than a quarter — stem from bishops’ decisions of law related to the paragraph.

Two of those items come from the North Georgia Conference. The conference and its largest-member church, Mt. Bethel, are also engaged in a civil lawsuit and countersuit in county court over church property. Mt. Bethel has invoked Paragraph 2553 in making its case. 

At annual conference, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson faced the question of whether a church that identifies as traditional like Mt. Bethel (meaning one that supports current denominational restrictions related to homosexuality) can disaffiliate under Paragraph 2553. Haupert-Johnson said no ruling of law is required because the North Georgia Annual Conference Board of Trustees will not question “the reasons of conscience” behind a church’s decision to disaffiliate

In a separate decision of law, Haupert-Johnson said that the annual conference’s authority in approving or disapproving a disaffiliation agreement “is limited to a simple yes or no.”

Another two disaffiliation-related docket items come from the New England Conference, including a bishop’s decision of law deferred from an earlier docket.  

In 2019, the New England Annual Conference added to the disaffiliation procedures that churches considering disaffiliation go through at least an eight-month discernment process, seek assessments of the impact of the departure and hold at least four listening sessions with members. Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar said these additions do not conflict with, negate or eliminate part of the law.

This year, Devadhar said the motion of three clergy members for the ratification of congregations’ disaffiliation agreements were valid “because the members were in good standing with both voice and vote.” After the motion, a video played featuring the clergy and congregation members, including speakers who were not voting annual conference members. Devadhar said his decision to proceed after the video was a procedural one and not one the Judicial Council would typically review.

As in New England, Arkansas Conference Bishop Gary Mueller also faced a question about an annual conference addition to Paragraph 2553 standards. He said, “the requirement that Arkansas Annual Conference Board of Trustees seek ‘repayment of district, annual conference or general church grants made in the past 10 years, excluding benevolent grants’ does not invalidly negate, ignore or violate church law.”

In the Alabama-West Florida Conference, Bishop David Graves upheld the 2020 disaffiliation of the former Woodlawn United Methodist Church as constitutional

The Judicial Council also faces questions related to the deadline for submitting legislation to the coming General Conference, now twice postponed by the pandemic to 2022

The Book of Discipline says that petitions can be submitted until 230 days before General Conference. The Discipline also allows annual conferences to submit legislation if they meet between 230 and 45 days before General Conference.

The General Conference commission announced that any petitions submitted after the original deadlines for what would have been the 2020 General Conference would be treated as late legislation. That puts the decision of whether General Conference considers the late-arriving petitions in the hands of the Committee on Reference, a bishop-appointed group of 24 delegates that typically meets the day before General Conference opens.

“The commission has remained consistent with the understanding of postponement as opposed to cancellation,” commission leaders said in an emailed statement to United Methodist News. “Under postponement, the General Conference petition process is ongoing.”

Three docket items — two from Alaska and one from Arkansas — question the commission’s interpretation of petition deadlines.

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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