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Decision No. 1027
October 28 2005
In Re: Appeal by the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church from the Decision of the Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals in the Matter of Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud.
Digest of Case
The decision of the Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals is reversed and the verdict and penalty of the trial court in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference is reinstated. Rev. Stroud was accorded all fair and due process rights enumerated in the Discipline and in Judicial Council decisions. Regulation of the practice of homosexuality does not violate the “status” provisions of the Constitution. The Committee on Appeals was without jurisdiction to declare that ¶ 304.3 established a new standard of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine. Such a determination is reserved solely to the General Conference, and the Discipline does not require that it must use specific language to do so. The instructions of the presiding officer of the trial court correctly stated the law of the church with respect to the penalty deliberations of the trial court and did not constitute error.
Statement of Facts
In March of 2003, Reverend Irene Elizabeth Stroud, then the associate pastor of First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Pennsylvania, met with the presiding bishop of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference and disclosed that she was “a lesbian living in a committed relationship with a partner.” In a letter dated April 19, 2003, Rev. Stroud notified the members of the church she served of her struggle “to respond to God’s calling” while “a lesbian living in a committed relationship with a partner.” In her letter, Rev. Stroud acknowledged that her disclosure would put her “credentials as an ordained United Methodist minister at risk.” On April 27, 2003, Rev. Stroud delivered a sermon at the church she served, in which she disclosed that she was a lesbian and introduced the partner with whom she had lived “in a covenant relationship for two and one-half years.” By letter dated May 29, 2003, Rev. Stroud’s presiding bishop initiated the complaint process to “bring [her] membership in the ministerial office of Elder under review.” This letter indicated that Rev. Stroud would be charged with engaging in “practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings,” a chargeable offense under ¶ 2702.1 of the 2000 Discipline. When reconciliation was not achieved as part of a supervisory response, a complaint was filed against Rev. Stroud on behalf of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference on March 31, 2004. On June 14, 2004, Rev. Stroud filed her answer to the complaint admitting the factual allegations of the complaint. On October 11, 2004, a committee on investigation unanimously issued a bill of charges and specifications against Rev. Stroud charging her with violating ¶ 2702.1(b) of the Discipline. Rev. Stroud was tried on the bill of charges and specifications on December 1-2, 2004. During the trial, Rev. Stroud was asked about each of the specifications contained in the bill of charges and specifications. In each instance, she admitted the accuracy of each of the statements made in the specifications, including that the relationship between Rev. Stroud and her female partner was a completely physical one, including engaging in genital sexual contact, as a part of who they were as a loving couple and as partners. The trial court jury found Rev. Stroud guilty of the specifications and charge by a vote of 12-1. Specifically, the trial court jury found that:
1. In a letter dated April 19, 2003, Rev. Stroud notified the members of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown of her struggle “to respond to God’s calling” while “a lesbian living in a committed relationship with a partner.” 2. On April 27, 2003, Rev. Stroud did deliver a sermon to the congregation of First United Methodist Church of Germantown about her sexual orientation in which she stated that she was a lesbian, introduced her partner to the congregation, acknowledged that they lived in a covenant relationship for two-and-one-half years, and stated that disclosure of her lesbian relationship could result in “losing [her] credentials as an ordained United Methodist minister.” 3. On July 23, 2004, Rev. Stroud acknowledged to the committee on investigation that the relationship between herself and her female partner was a complete physical one, including engaging in genital sexual contact, as a part of being “a loving couple and as partners.” 4. Rev. Stroud currently and for approximately three-and-a-half years has been a self-avowed practicing homosexual in a monogamous committed relationship with a specific female partner while in the ordained ministry of The United Methodist Church.The trial court jury likewise sustained the charge that Rev. Stroud had engaged in practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings. After deliberations concerning the penalty, the trial court jury voted 7-6 to withdraw the credentials of Rev. Stroud. Rev. Stroud appealed the decision of the trial court jury to the Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals. On April 29, 2005, the Committee on Appeals, by a vote of 8-1 reversed and set aside the verdict and the penalty of the trial court. In its decision, the Committee on Appeals stated:
Although the Committee believes that the evidence in support of the charge was overwhelming and would be sustained in the absence of legal error, the Committee concludes that legal error vitiates the verdict on two independent grounds. First, Judicial Council Decision No. 702, which binds this Committee, makes it legal error – namely, a deprivation of due process – to try, convict and deprive a member in full connection of her right to an appointment pursuant to ¶¶ 304.3 and 2702.1(b) of the Discipline when, as in this case, neither the General Conference nor the pertinent Annual Conference has defined the words “practicing homosexuals” and “status.” Second, it was error to try and convict [Rev. Stroud] on the basis of ¶ 304.3 because that provision constitutes a “new standard or rule of doctrine” which has not been declared by he [sic] General Conference to be “‘not contrary to’ the present standards,” in violation of the First Restrictive Rule and ¶ 102 of the Discipline.The Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference appealed the decision of the Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals to the Judicial Council under ¶ 2609.8 of the 2004 Discipline. Oral hearings were held in Houston, Texas on October 27, 2005. Rev. Dr. Thomas Hall, Robert Shoemaker, Esquire, and Dr. Richard Heitzenrater spoke on behalf the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference. Rev. Jim Hallam and Alan A. Symonette, Esquire, spoke on behalf of Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud.
“Self-avowed practicing homosexual” is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee on ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual. See Judicial Council Decisions 702, 708, 722, 725, 764.The adoption of footnote 1 to ¶ 304.3 was in direct response to Decision 702. The Judicial Council was asked in Decision 920 to address whether a declaration by a clergy woman in a letter to her bishop stating that she is “living in a partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship with another woman, is a sufficient declaration that she is a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ to make her ineligible for an appointment under the definition of ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ in the footnote to Paragraph 304.3 and Judicial Council Decision 702?” In response, in Decision 920, in exercising its responsibility to render declaratory decisions on the meaning, application and effect of specific disciplinary provisions (¶ 2610), the Judicial Council unanimously held that such a statement was sufficient to subject such person’s membership in her ministerial office to review under ¶ 359.1 of the Discipline. If in the course of such review, such person affirmed that the person was engaged in genital sexual activity with a person of the same gender, such person would have openly acknowledged that the person is a self-avowed practicing homosexual. The lack of a definition for “status” does not deny Rev. Stroud due or fair process. She can and has asserted that her ministerial office has been jeopardized because of the fact that she is a practicing homosexual and has argued that such action violates constitutional provisions to ensure the inclusiveness of the church. We hold that ¶ 304.3 is not directed at the status of being a homosexual or having a particular sexual orientation. No provision of the Discipline bars a person with a same-sex orientation from the ordained ministry of The United Methodist Church. Rather, ¶ 304.3 is directed towards those persons who practice that same-sex orientation by engaging in prohibited sexual activity. Likewise, persons who have a heterosexual orientation who practice that orientation in prohibited ways – by not practicing fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness as required by ¶ 304.2 – are subject to chargeable offenses. Regulation of practice does not violate the “status” provisions of the Constitution. The holding of the Committee on Appeals is reversed. The trial court did not err in this regard. The First Restrictive Rule The First Restrictive Rule is a part of the Constitution of The United Methodist Church. The rule provides:
The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.¶ 16 of the 2000 Discipline. In Decision 59, the Judicial Council held that it “was not set up as an interpreter of doctrine but as an interpreter of law from the strictly legal standpoint.” Jurisdictional committees on appeal exist only to interpret and apply the law of The United Methodist Church. This principle has been repeatedly applied in response to challenges to disciplinary provisions on the basis that the adoption of such provisions violate the First Restrictive Rule. In addressing such challenges, the Judicial Council has applied a two-step process. First, the Judicial Council determines whether the language used in the challenged disciplinary provision revokes, alters, or changes the Articles of Religion (¶ 103 of the 2004 Discipline). In making such a determination, the Judicial Council has held that the questioned language must be placed in the Articles of Religion or must be in direct conflict with language of the Articles of Religion. See Decisions 86 and 142. Paragraph 304.3 of the 2000 Discipline does not insert any word or phrase into one of the Articles of Religion nor is it in direct conflict with specific language in the Articles of Religion. Second, where language used in a challenged disciplinary provision is not placed in the Articles of Religion and is not in direct conflict with language of the Articles of Religion, we have held that it does not have jurisdiction to pass on the constitutionality of such language, even though the language may be theological or doctrinal in nature, because to do so would be to engage in the interpretation of doctrine, an act which is beyond our authority. See Decisions 86 and 243. When the General Conference enacts language which, even though doctrinal or theological in nature, is not placed in the Articles of Religion and which does not directly conflict with the Articles of Religion, only the General Conference is competent to determine whether its enactment establishes a new standard or rule of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine. See Decision 243. The Discipline does not mandate how this must be done. In Memorandum 1002 the Judicial Council stated that ¶ 102 of the Discipline is historical in nature and not intended to be prescriptive. Paragraph 102 states, in part:
The process of creating new “standards or rules of doctrine” thus continues to be restricted, requiring either that they be declared “not contrary to” the present standards or that they go through the difficult process of constitutional amendment.This provision does not require that the General Conference use specific language in adopting new disciplinary language which may have doctrinal or theological content. Such language has not been required in any of the decisions of the Judicial Council cited by Rev. Stroud or discussed earlier in this decision. Under our polity the General Conference is empowered to declare practices to be incompatible with Christian teachings legislatively. ¶ 15 of the Discipline; see Decision 544. The Judicial Council has already held that ¶ 304.3 (previously ¶402.2) is constitutional. See Decision 544. The Committee on Appeals lacked jurisdiction to determine whether ¶ 304.3 of the Discipline established a new standard or rule of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine. Such a determination would require an interpretation of doctrine which is beyond judicial authority under United Methodist polity. Reinstatement of Trial Court Verdict and Penalty Rev. Stroud has argued that in instructing the trial court regarding the imposition of a penalty, the presiding officer committed a serious error of church law by stating that “a Bishop may not appoint one who has been found by a Trial Court to be a Self-Avowed, Practicing Homosexual.” The questioned instruction accurately stated the law of the church. ¶ 304.3 of the Discipline and Decision 985. The presiding officer also instructed the trial court:
The Discipline further states that the Trial Court shall determine the penalty which shall require a vote of at least 7 members. It’s 9 for verdict and 7 for penalty. The Trial Court shall have the power to expel the Respondent from the Church, terminate the conference membership and/or revoke the credential of ordination or consecration of Respondent, suspend the Respondent from the exercise of the functions of office, or to fix a lesser penalty.This instruction was also a correct statement of the law of the church under ¶ 2711.3 of the Discipline. The presiding officer accurately and comprehensively summarized the law of The United Methodist Church and committed no error in giving such instructions. The decision of the Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals is reversed and the verdict and the penalty of the trial court involving Rev. Stroud are reinstated.