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Decision No. 999

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October 28 2004
In Re: IN RE: Review of Bishop’s Decision of Law in the Troy Annual Conference Concerning Propriety of a Resolution Entitled “Providing Health Care Coverage for Domestic Partners.”

Digest of Case

An annual conference may investigate and study any issue not expressly prohibited by the Discipline. An annual conference may also advocate with the general church boards and agencies for changes in policies and procedures. An annual conference may not delegate implementation of changes in health insurance coverage for employees of the annual conference where the specific changes have not been approved in advance by the annual conference. The Bishop’s decision of law is affirmed in part and reversed in part.

Statement of Facts

During the June 11, 2004, afternoon session, the Troy Annual Conference adopted Petition # 1 “Providing Health Care Coverage for Domestic Partners,” which provided in relevant part :

[T]he Committee on Health Insurance [is] directed to make all reasonable efforts to find a way to extend health insurance coverage to domestic partners of employees of the Troy Annual Conference and its churches to all pastors and laity employed in any capacity within Troy Conference churches and to implement such coverage as soon as possible. If the Committee concludes that such coverage cannot reasonably be provided, it is directed to publish a report of its investigation and conclusions in the Troy Conference Connections not later than January 2006. . . . [T]he Conference Committee on Health Insurance [is] directed to officially, petition, on behalf of Troy Annual Conference, the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits and all involved health providers to offer any necessary riders and changes to make health insurance coverage more inclusive and available to all who serve God through the employed ministries of our churches.
The resolution was adopted by a vote of 207 for, 155 against, with 14 abstentions. During the June 11, 2004, evening session, a member of the Annual Conference “called a point of order and asked that Bishop Morrison rule on Petition 1 [quoted above] as to its constitutionality and the Discipline. Bishop Morrison advised that she would consider the petition and write a ruling following the conference. The Ruling would be on the Troy Conference Web site and be sent to the Judicial Council.” The written request for ruling, delivered to the presiding bishop at that time, states:
I [would] like a ruling on Petition # 1 by the chair. It appears to me that this petition appears to be out of order according to Paragraph 161c of our Discipline in regards to General Conference’s support of traditional marriage and elsewhere in our Discipline regarding incompatibility of homosexuality.
On June 25, 2004, the Bishop issued a decision of law stating:
I rule that Petition # 1 is not out of order for the following reason: The preface to the Social Principles, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2000 reads as follows: The Social Principles “are a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit; however, they are not church law.” Therefore, Petition # 1 is not out of order.
Jurisdiction The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2609.6 of the 2000 Discipline. Analysis and Rationale In Decision 799 the Judicial Council stated that “[q]uestions of law shall be germane to the regular business, consideration, or discussion of the Annual Conference and shall state the connection to a specific action taken, or the question must be raised during the deliberation of a specific issue of a matter upon which the conference takes action.” The question asked here was germane to the regular business of the Annual Conference. The Judicial Council has repeatedly held that it does not have jurisdiction to review parliamentary rulings of episcopal leaders made during annual conference sessions. See Decisions 898, 941, 943, 953. The Bishop did not treat the “point of order” as a request for a parliamentary ruling. Instead, the Bishop took the matter under advisement, and reserved the right to issue a decision of law. In order for a request to be a parliamentary ruling, the chair must rule on the request in the parliamentary session affording the opportunity for an appeal from the chair’s ruling to the body. Because the Bishop did not handle the matter as a request for a parliamentary ruling but rather as a request for a decision of law, the Judicial Council has jurisdiction to review the Bishop’s decision of law under ¶ 2609.6 of the Discipline. The petition adopted by the Troy Annual Conference directed the Committee on Health Insurance to: 1) make all reasonable efforts to find a way to extend health insurance coverage to domestic partners, 2) implement such coverage as soon as possible, and 3) petition the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits and all involved health providers to offer necessary riders and changes to make health insurance coverage more inclusive and available to all who serve God through the employed ministries of the church. The first action required by the petition is a direction to investigate and study. An annual conference, and its agencies and entities, may study and investigate any issue not expressly prohibited by the Discipline. The Discipline does not place any limitation on an annual conference or its agencies or entities studying the issue addressed in the Troy Annual Conference petition. The second action required by the petition, for the Committee on Health Insurance to implement health insurance coverage for domestic partners, results in an unlawful delegation of the authority reserved to the annual conference. By virtue of the petition the Annual Conference delegated to the Committee on Health Insurance the authority to implement whatever change the Committee might in its own discretion deem advisable without prior specific and affirmative approval of the annual conference. Annual conferences may not delegate authority reserved to the annual conference to another body. See Decisions 78, 79, 380, 400, 584 and 590. The Bishop erred in holding this portion of the petition lawful. The third action, to petition the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits and all health providers to offer necessary riders and changes to make health insurance coverage more inclusive and available to all who serve God through the employed ministries of the church, does not violate the Discipline. The annual conference and its agencies and entities are permitted to seek to persuade the general church, and its agencies and entities, on any subject. Often, it is in the give and take of such a process that positions are refined and solutions defined. Nothing in the Discipline prohibits an annual conference from advocating for broader health insurance coverage. The Bishop’s decision of law that the petition was not out of order is affirmed with respect to the direction to study the issue addressed and to advocate for broader health insurance coverage. The Bishop’s decision of law that the petition was not out of order with respect to implementing changes to health insurance coverage for domestic partners is reversed because that portion of the petition unlawfully delegates the authority and power of the annual conference to another entity.

Decision

An annual conference may investigate and study any issue not expressly prohibited by the Discipline. An annual conference may also advocate with the general church boards and agencies for changes in policies and procedures. An annual conference may not delegate implementation of changes in health insurance coverage for employees of the annual conference where the specific changes have not been approved in advance by the annual conference. The Bishop’s decision of law is affirmed in part and reversed in part.

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