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Decision No. 833

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August 07 1998
In Re: Request from the College of Bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction for a Declaratory Decision on Whether the Language "Ceremonies That Celebrate Homosexual Unions Shall Not Be Conducted by Our Ministers and Shall Not Be Conducted in Our Churches" in ¶ 65 of the 1996 Discipline Constitutes a Chargeable Offense under ¶ 2624. Request from the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision on Whether the Social Principles Are to Be Understood as Law for United Methodists and the Relationship Between the Social Principles and Chargeable Offense. Request from the North Alabama Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision That All Homosexual Union Services Are Illegal under ¶ 15 of the 1996 Discipline. Request from the Nebraska Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision on Whether the Performance of a Ceremony Celebrating a Homosexual Union or a Same-Sex Covenanting Ceremony by a United Methodist Pastor in a United Methodist Church Is a Violation of the Discipline And, Therefore, a Chargeable Offense under ¶ 2624 of the 1996 Discipline.

Digest of Case

The prohibitive statement in ¶ 65.C of the 1996 Discipline: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches," has the effect of church law, notwithstanding its placement in ¶ 65.C and, therefore, governs the conduct of the ministerial office. Conduct in violation of this prohibition renders clergy liable to a charge of disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church under ¶ 2624 of the Discipline.

Statement of Facts

The College of Bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church pursuant to the provisions of ¶ 2616 of the 1996 Discipline has petitioned the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision upon the following question: Does the language: Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches. (emphasis supplied) in ¶ 65.C) of the Discipline govern the conduct of the ministerial office in The United Methodist Church and does violation thereof constitute a chargeable offense pursuant to the provisions of subparagraph "1." of ¶ 2624. of the Discipline? The Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference has petitioned the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on the following two questions: THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference request the Judicial Council issue a declaratory decision whether or not the Social Principles (¶¶ 64-70 of the 1996 The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church) are to be understood as law for United Methodists; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference request a second decision as whether the Social Principles, as currently written can be properly used to establish grounds for the chargeable offense for clergy of "disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church." (¶ 2624) The North Alabama Annual Conference requests a declaratory decision "that all homosexual union services are illegal under ¶ 15, page 25 of The Book of Discipline." The Nebraska Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, meeting at its annual session, petitioned the Judicial Council to make a declaratory decision on the following question of law: Is the performance of a ceremony celebrating a homosexual union or a same-sex covenanting ceremony by a United Methodist pastor in a United Methodist Church a violation of the Discipline of the United Methodist Church and therefore a chargeable offense under ¶ 2624 of the 1996 Discipline? At a hearing in Dallas, Texas, on August 7, 1998, oral presentations were made by Bishop Dan E. Solomon and Bishop Bruce P. Blake, representing the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops. Also appearing were Michael McClellan, Douglas Williamson, and Jimmy Creech. Jurisdiction The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2616 of the 1996 Discipline. Analysis and Rationale The Judicial Council has received more than thirty briefs representing many views of the questions involved. The council is quite aware of the very sensitive and volatile nature of the issues. For these reasons, it must be stated, as has been stated in other decisions, that the Judicial Council is not a legislative body. The council's role, power, authority and scope are defined in the Discipline of The United Methodist Church, which includes, but is not limited to the Constitution. Briefly, under ¶ 2616 the role of the council in declaratory decisions, is to determine "... the constitutionality, meaning, application, or effect of the Discipline or any portion thereof or of any act or legislation of a General Conference; ..." The council further recognizes that for more than twenty-five years the issue of homosexuality has been debated and discussed in The United Methodist Church, and that the discussion and debate will continue long after this decision is rendered. Having so stated the above, Docket Nos. I, IV and V basically address the same questions and are to be considered in the council's determination of the meaning, application, or effect of the legislation involved and will be considered together. Docket No. III involves the same principles of law, but is much broader in its scope and will be addressed separately in this decision. The Judicial Council takes jurisdiction for the narrow purpose in this decision of dealing with the requests for declaratory decisions surrounding only the amendment by the 1996 General Conference to ¶ 65.C. The General Conference under the Constitution has the following specific power and authority as stated therein: ¶ 15. The General Conference shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional, and in the exercise of this power shall have authority as follows: ... 2. To define and fix the powers and duties of elders, deacons ... . In accordance with these powers and authority the General Conference adopted the amendment to ¶ 65.C. A review of the legislative history of the addition of the sentence: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches," reflects the legislative intent of the 1996 General Conference. The prohibition against United Methodist ministers conducting ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions was enacted by the 1996 General Conference. The legislation came before the Conference on a petition presented by the Administrative Council of Grace United Methodist Church, Newport, Kentucky. The petition was assigned to the Church and Society Legislative Committee and was assigned number 22493-CS-71-D. It was submitted as follows: Add new text to ¶ 71.C of the 1992 Book of Discipline. "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." The Legislative Committee brought Petition number 22493 to the Thursday evening, April 27, 1996, Plenary Session of the General Conference as Calendar Item No. 2402. (Daily Christian Advocate, Vol. III, p. 583, April 25, 1996) The chair of the committee presented it in its original form. The subcommittee chair also presented the item and commented, "One of the questions that we had was whether we should have received this petition or whether it should have gone to the Board of Ordained Ministries. But we acted on this petition and the vote, 29 to 25, felt that ceremonies should not be conducted by ministers in our churches." (Daily Christian Advocate, Vol. III, p. 778, April 27, 1996) After placing the petition before the body, there was debate and a motion was made to refer the petition to the "Board of Ordained Ministry-Board of Higher Education in Ministry." Debate on the motion to refer ensued. The debate centered upon the nature of the Social Principles and whether the legislation was appropriate for the Social Principles. The motion to refer the petition was defeated. (Daily Christian Advocate, Vol. III, p. 779, April 27, 1996) The vote to approve Calendar Item No. 2402 was taken, and the General Conference approved it on a vote of 553 for and 321 against. (Daily Christian Advocate, Vol. III, p. 780, April 27, 1996) The 1996 General Conference dealt with other issues on homosexuality during the April 25 evening session. After the vote approving Calendar Item No. 2402 prohibiting homosexual unions, the Conference turned to Petition No. 22408 titled "Creation of Commitment Ceremonies for Same Sex Couples within The United Methodist Church." The Legislative Committee recommended nonconcurrence with this petition and the General Conference voted 628 to 190 in support of the committee. A similar petition was also defeated by a vote of 655 to 203. (Daily Christian Advocate, Vol. III, p. 788 ff., April 27, 1996) The next items presented to the General Conference on homosexuality during this session were from the General/Judicial Administration Legislative Committee. These petitions were on the subject of Chargeable Offenses for Pastors. The chair of the Subcommittee on Judicial Matters in the General/Judicial Administrative Committee presented three petitions that asked "the General Conference to amend ¶ 2623.1 of the Book of Discipline by adding to the list of chargeable offenses for pastors [those] who participate in leadership of same-sex covenant services uniting gay and lesbian persons." The committee voted nonconcurrence, with 44 for, 23 against and 3 abstaining. The vote of nonconcurrence, the chair explained, was based especially on the fact that the committee did not feel that it should vote to add items "to the Book of Discipline that appear to be self-evident or already and adequately cared for under other paragraphs within the Book of Discipline." With respect to adding to the list of chargeable offenses, participation in leadership of a same-sex covenant service uniting gay or lesbian persons, the chair said nonconcurrence was voted because the committee "felt there is more than adequate paragraphs within the Book of Discipline, including actions . . . taken today on the new 71.C [now ¶ 65.C], . . . but specifically in ¶ 2623.1e, which declares ‘Disobedience to the Order of the Discipline of The United Methodist Church' as a chargeable offense, adequately and effectively covers this particular petition . . . " The General Conference supported the Committee’s recommendation of nonconcurrence with a vote of 730. The record does not reflect the vote against nonconcurrence. (Daily Christian Advocate, Vol III, p. 783, April 27, 1996) In rendering this decision the Judicial Council must decide whether ¶ 65.C is law and whether ¶ 65.C governs the conduct of the ministerial office. Under ¶ 15, the General Conference has the authority to speak on connectional matters, and, when this authority results in a legislative enactment stated in mandatory language, it is the law of the church, notwithstanding its placement in the Discipline. The second question raised is: Does the last sentence of ¶ 65.C of the 1996 Discipline: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches," govern the conduct of the ministerial office in The United Methodist Church and does violation thereof constitute a chargeable offense pursuant to the provisions of ¶ 2624 of the Discipline? Par. 304 states that persons to be ordained in The United Methodist Church are to "...Be accountable to The United Methodist Church, accept its Discipline and authority, accept the supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers." The deliberations of the General Conference are indicative that the Legislative Committees and the delegates to General Conference were enacting legislation that would be binding as the law of the Church. The prohibitive statement governs the function of all clergy members of The United Methodist Church. The amendment language is descriptive of expected functions of a clergy member, who has accepted a covenant relationship to uphold the "Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church." Failure to do so is a disciplinary violation, and therefore, subjects clergy to the process of formal complaint, including fair process as defined in the Discipline. The General Conference, as the legislative body of the Church, has the constitutional authority to define and fix the powers and duties of the ministers of the Church. Pursuant to its constitutional authority, the 1996 General Conference was endowed with authority to enact legislation that fixes the parameters of United Methodist ministers’ power to conduct ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions. The General Conference has said that United Methodist ministers shall not conduct such ceremonies. The added language of ¶ 65.C is a proper exercise of the General Conference’s authority. Decision 694 holds that the General Conference is the body that has prerogative power over matters distinctively connectional. In Decision 694, the council was asked to decide whether an Annual Conference had the authority to establish or alter the official rites and rituals of the Church. The case came before the Judicial Council as a result of the action of the Minnesota Annual Conference in approving a resolution which gave reconciling congregations the right to offer services of blessings and celebration of committed relationships of couples of same gender, and the action of the Troy Annual Conference in approving a resolution permitting ministers to participate in covenant services. The Judicial Council held that the Annual Conference had no authority to establish or alter the official rites and rituals of the Church. That authority was lodged in the General Conference by the Constitution of The United Methodist Church. The council went on to declare that "it is the responsibility of pastors in charge to perform their duties in compliance with the Discipline and be obedient to the Order and Discipline of the Church." This decision clearly states that the legislative enactments of the General Conference regarding the duties and powers of ministers are binding on ministers in the connection and their conduct must conform to those provisions. The Discipline states that "disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church" constitutes a chargeable offense, rendering clergy liable to a charge of disobedience to the Order and Discipline of the Church. The Judicial Council reaffirms fair process (¶ 2623) and Decisions 557, 723, and 724, in any action leading to a complaint and charge. As to Docket No. III, the request from the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference for a declaratory decision on whether the Social Principles are to be understood as law for United Methodists and the relationship between the Social Principles and chargeable offense, the council is unable to render a definitive decision on all of the specific provisions of the paragraphs under the section designated as Social Principles without a reference to a specific paragraph. This is especially true when the request includes relating these matters to chargeable offenses.

Decision

The prohibitive statement in ¶ 65.C of the 1996 Discipline: "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches," has the effect of church law, notwithstanding its placement in ¶ 65.C and, therefore, governs the conduct of the ministerial office. Conduct in violation of this prohibition renders clergy liable to a charge of disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church under ¶ 2624 of the Discipline.

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