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Decision No. 340

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April 23 1971
In Re: A Petition From the Commission on Religion and Race for a Declaratory Decision on the Constitutionality of the Plan of Merger of the North Georgia Annual Conference and the Georgia Annual Conference of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.

Digest of Case

The merger agreement of the Georgia Annual Conference and North Georgia Annual Conference is constitutional and valid. To the extent that the merger agreement continues overlapping boundaries of the Georgia Annual Conference Savannah District as a racial structure within the South Georgia Conference, said district shall be with the North Georgia Conference for a transitional period only in the nature of a trusteeship, subject to further merger negotiations of the North and South Georgia Annual Conferences, action of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference or General Conference to eliminate the overlapping boundaries and racial separation.

Statement of Facts

In 1968 all three Annual Conferences of the Atlanta Area of the Southeastern Jurisdiction (the North Georgia Annual Conference, the South Georgia Annual Conference of the former Southeastern Jurisdiction, and the Georgia Annual Conference of the former The Methodist Church) appointed merger committees to work out terms of merger for the three Conferences. The July 1968 session of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, in addition to passing the familiar Omnibus Resolution "for the elimination of racial structure and the development of greater understanding and brotherhood in The Methodist Church," adopted a resolution approving mergers of its Annual Conferences designed to bring about the end of racial structures in the Church. Part 1 of this resolution "hereby approves of any mergers hereafter arranged and approved between the Annual Conference of the former Central Jurisdiction of The Methodist Church or of the former Evangelical United Brethren Church and of the former Southeastern Jurisdiction of The Methodist Church." Part 2 of this resolution specifically approved of certain mergers then under consideration ". . . (6) the Georgia Conference with the North Georgia Conference and the South Georgia Conference to form two new Conferences named North Georgia and South Georgia with the boundaries of the old Conferences of the Atlanta Area as the boundaries of the new Conferences...." Part 3 of this resolution modified a strict construction of boundaries by approving "the acceptance by the appropriate Conference involved in merger of such individual churches or charges as may be agreed upon by the negotiating Conferences being peculiarly contiguous to the receiving Conference notwithstanding their being strictly situated within the geographical boundaries of another Conference." The merger committees of the three Conferences worked out a Plan of Merger whereby the churches of the Georgia Annual Conference located within the geographical boundaries of the South Georgia Annual Conference would join the churches of that Conference to form a new South Georgia Annual Conference, and the churches of the Georgia Annual Conference located within the geographical boundaries of the North Georgia Annual Conference would merge with the churches of that Conference to form a new North Georgia Annual Conference. At the Annual Conference sessions in 1969 this Plan of Merger was approved by the Georgia Conference by a vote of 116 to 7, and by the North Georgia Conference 624-217. The South Georgia Conference voted against the Plan 400-289 but declared that it was still interested in merger and asked its committee to continue working with the committees of the other two Conferences toward an acceptable plan. Substantially the same Plan of Merger was presented to the three Annual Conferences at their sessions in 1970. The Georgia Conference approved it 79-52. The South Georgia Conference defeated it again 354-313. The North Georgia Conference, meeting after the other two, took no further vote on the Plan, but authorized its merger committee to work out with the Georgia Conference committee necessary modifications of the Plan to apply to their two Conferences. This was done and the new Plan of Merger was presented to the two Conferences at special sessions in 1971, the Georgia Annual Conference approving it 125-26, the North Georgia Annual Conference approving it 486-360. The new Plan of Merger included 79 charges of the Georgia Annual Conference located within the boundaries of the North Georgia Conference and 17 charges of the Georgia Annual Conference which are located within some 15 counties of the geographical boundaries of the South Georgia Annual Conference and peculiarly contiguous to the North Georgia Conference. These latter charges had composed the Savannah District of the Georgia Annual Conference, historically a racially defined district. They became a new district, designated District 13, in the new Conference. This meant that there was in the Plan of Merger some degree of continuing racial structure and overlapping of boundaries of the new North Georgia Conference and South Georgia Conference. It was this fact which prompted the Commission on Religion and Race to petition the Judicial Council for a Declaratory Decision on the validity of this Plan of Merger. The question of the legality of the merger was raised because of the inclusion of the 17 charges located within and overlapping the geographical boundaries of the South Georgia Annual Conference. JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Paragraph 1715 of the Discipline. ANALYSIS It was apparent in appearances before the Judicial Council that there was a division of opinion in the Commission on Religion and Race concerning the constitutionality of the merger in question. The challenge to its validity was expressed in a statement by Clenzo B. Fox, a member of the Commission, who argued that the merger was unconstitutional and invalid for the following reasons: "1. Because the plan of merger changed the boundary of the North Georgia Annual Conference as same was determined by the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference July 29, 1968. 2. Because it merges only two (2) Annual Conferences to form a new conference and thusly fails to comply with the action of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, July 29, 1968. 3. Because said plan of merger does not result in a geographical alignment of the conferences but results in the maintenance of overlapping boundaries between the new North Georgia Conference and the South Georgia Conference and to the extent of such overlapping said plan of merger is unconstitutional and invalid." The first two of these reasons would declare the merger unconstitutional on the ground that it did not conform to the specific approval granted by the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. There were three actions taken by the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in July 1968, as noted above in the Statement of Facts. The argument here is that the merger in question did not conform to the second action approving certain specific mergers. There were, however, two other actions. The first one was a broad approval "of any mergers hereafter arranged and approved between the Annual Conferences. . . ." The third one seemed to anticipate the possible difficulty of drawing strict geographical boundaries and therefore permitted by mutual agreement a reasonable amount of overlapping of certain individual churches or charges "peculiarly contiguous to the receiving Conferences." When the attempt to merge the three Annual Conferences of the Atlanta Area to fit the specifies of the second approval action failed in two successive years by the negative vote of the South Georgia Annual Conference, the other two Conferences moved ahead on the basis of the broad consent granted in the first action, supported by the limited consent of the third action. The Judicial Council believes that the Georgia Annual Conference and the North Georgia Annual Conference had under these actions the necessary consent of the Jurisdictional Conference. The third reason given in the challenge to the constitutionality of this merger action is that the merger results in the maintenance of overlapping boundaries between the new North Georgia Annual Conference and the South Georgia Annual Conference. This is a more serious challenge and requires the analysis of certain actions of the General Conference and the Judicial Council. Article IV of Division One of the Constitution on "The Inclusiveness of the Church" reads- "The United Methodist Church is part of the Church Universal which is one Body in Christ. Therefore, all persons, without regard to race, color, national origin, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, and, when they take the appropriate vows, to be admitted into its membership in any local church in the connection. In The United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin or economic condition." Paragraph 9 of the Enabling Legislation of the Plan of Union (Paragraph 1901) reads in part- "The objective toward which the new Church moves is an inclusive Church with no overlapping of Annual Conference boundaries. The Plan of Union contemplates that unification of church structure shall take place in steps as follows: Step One (a) Upon the Plan of Union becoming effective, all Annual Conferences of both uniting churches will automatically become part of a Jurisdiction or a Central Conference or a Provisional Central Conference of the united Church in each case as shown in the attached schedule. Step Two (b) Wherever in a Jurisdiction or in a Central Conference or in a Provisional Central Conference, Annual Conference boundaries overlap, the Annual Conferences involved shall designate committees or agencies to study the possibility of, and bring about as soon as practicable and mutually agreeable, the uniting or rearranging of Annual Conferences and Annual Conference boundaries to the end that there shall be no overlapping of Annual Conference boundaries. . . ." (c) Annual Conferences shall not, for a period of twelve years following union, have their names or boundaries changed without their consent (Paragraph 41). This shall not prevent voluntary action by Annual Conferences, and it is anticipated that most, and perhaps all, such Annual Conferences will have taken steps necessary to eliminate overlapping with other Annual Conferences substantially prior to the expiration of the specified time. At the end of the twelve years, if any such Annual Conferences still remain, authority to eliminate overlapping by the redefining of Annual Conference boundaries will vest in the Jurisdiction (Paragraph 26.4) or in the Central Conference (Paragraph 30.4) as the case may be; but nothing herein contained shall be construed as preventing the elimination of Annual Conferences based on race." The issue posed by the instant petition requires the construction, application and interpretation of Paragraph 4 of the Constitution and section 9 of the Enabling Legislation (Par. 1901.9, 1968 Discipline) in the light of Decision No. 242 of the Judicial Council. The General Conference of the former The Methodist Church in 1966, when this proposed Constitution and Enabling Legislation was before it, petitioned the Judicial Council to answer the following questions: "Does this Article IV make possible (for such a period following union as the law of the Church may otherwise provide for the elimination of Annual Conferences formerly of the Central Jurisdiction) 1. The continuation of overlapping Annual Conferences even though the membership of one may be predominantly, or even exclusively, Negro and the other predominantly, or even exclusively, of another race or races? 2. The rearranging of Annual Conferences formerly of the Central Jurisdiction by mergers or by the dividing of such Annual Conferences into new districts even though at the time of such rearrangement the membership of such Annual Conferences is predominantly, or even exclusively, Negro and their boundaries overlap Annual Conferences the membership of which is predominantly, or even exclusively, of another race or races?" The Judicial Council decided (Decision No. 242) that such overlapping was not forbidden by the Constitution during the transition period provided by the Enabling Legislation. In the Digest of that Decision the Judicial Council declared: "During a transitional period, Article IV of Division One of the proposed Constitution of The United Methodist Church is to be construed in harmony with Enabling Legislation in the Plan of Union with The Evangelical United Brethren Church. This Enabling Legislation is a transitional constitutional enactment designed to enable uniting churches to move from their present positions to those mandated by the Constitution of The United Methodist Church. . ." Decision No. 242 was an advisory opinion, and was not judicial authorization for indefinite continuation of racial Annual Conferences or districts. We expressly held the Enabling Legislation to be a "transitional constitutional enactment designed to enable uniting churches to move from their present positions to those mandated by the Constitution of The United Methodist Church." Notwithstanding that we are now construing and interpreting the Constitution of The United Methodist Church, we do not ignore the objective, formulation of procedures, and progress of the former The Methodist Church toward the elimination of racial structures within the Church since 1958. We deem it appropriate to clarify the meaning of "transitional period" as used in Decision No. 242. While Section 9 (c) of the Enabling Legislation provides a period of twelve years in which Annual Conferences shall not have their names or boundaries changed without their consent, this period is expressly inapplicable in "the elimination of Annual Conferences based on race." It is within the legislative competence of the General Conference to eliminate at any time Annual Conferences or districts based on race. Further, the Omnibus Resolution of 1966 which was incorporated in the Enabling Legislation clearly sets forth the target date for elimination of overlapping boundaries based on racial structure, as follows: "By the adoption of this resolution each Annual Conference, each Jurisdictional Conference, the General Conference, each College of Bishops, and the Council of Bishops express their determination to do everything possible to bring about the elimination of any structural organization in The Methodist Church based on race at the earliest possible date and not later than the close of the Jurisdictional Conferences of 1972. They further express their earnest determination to do everything possible to develop greater understanding and brotherhood in Methodism as well as in the world." The Church has adopted and pursued a steady course toward the objective of removing all vestiges of racial separateness to achieve an inclusive church. The Omnibus Resolution of 1966 was a statement of determination to attain the objective "not later than the close of Jurisdictional Conferences of 1972." (See Decision No. 253, p. 674) Thus voluntary action for merger of separate Negro Annual Conferences with Annual Conferences of the regional jurisdictions permits continuation of overlapping boundaries or districts of predominantly Negro or other racial membership for a limited transitional period only. We hold in the instant case: (1) That the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference performed its duty "to determine the boundaries of (its) Annual Conferences" by prior approval of the negotiating conferences in its Resolution of 1968. (See Interim Judicial Council Decision No. 2) (2) That the merger agreement reached by the North Georgia Annual Conference and the Georgia Annual Conference is constitutional, in conformance with merger requirements, and valid. ( 3 ) That to the extent the merger agreement continued the overlapping boundaries of the Savannah District of the Georgia Annual Conference as a racial structure within the boundaries of the South Georgia Conference, designated as District 13, said District 13 is for a transitional period in the immediate future, in the nature of a trusteeship, pending action of the North Georgia and South Georgia Annual Conferences, Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference or General Conference. This is an application of the principle enunciated in Decision No. 246 that "while certain Annual Conferences which were established on the basis of race may continue to exist for the immediate future, race may no longer be used as a basis for establishing new Annual Conferences or other units within the Church."

Decision

The merger agreement of the Georgia Annual Conference and North Georgia Annual Conference is constitutional and valid. To the extent that the merger agreement continues overlapping boundaries of the Georgia Annual Conference Savannah District as a racial structure within the South Georgia Conference, said district shall be with the North Georgia Conference for a transitional period only in the nature of a trusteeship, subject to further merger negotiations of the North and South Georgia Annual Conferences, action of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference or General Conference to eliminate the overlapping boundaries and racial separation.

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