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Decision No. 1164

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October 29 2010
In Re: Request from the Northern Illinois Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision on the Annual Conference’s Inclusion of Sexual Orientation and Transgender Identity in Its Definition of Status in Regard to Article IV of the Constitution

Digest of Case

Under ¶ 16, Article IV of the Constitution, the General Conference has full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional. Words and phrases contained in the Constitution that require definition must be adequately defined by the General Conference. An Annual Conference may define disciplinary terms as may be necessary to fulfill and carry out its mission, however, constitutional terms must be defined by the General Conference in order to provide a clear and uniform standard of meaning.

Statement of Facts

The 2010 session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference adopted the following request for a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council:

A. That the Northern Illinois Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church hereby defines “status” to include sexual orientation and transgender identity. B. That the NIC Annual Conference and all of its standing Boards shall apply this definition of status to all matters implicated by Article IV of the Constitution within the authority and concerning the work of the Annual Conference. C. That the Northern Illinois Annual Conference request a Declaratory Decision under ¶ 2610.2(j) concerning the following questions: 1. Is the definition of status, above consistent with Judicial Council Decision 1020? 2. Is the definition of status, above, to be applied by the Annual Conference, consistent with Judicial Council Decision 1020? 3. Is definition of status, above, consistent with Article IV of the Constitution of the Church, and with Section 139 of the Book of Discipline Further, this resolution is to become a “continuing valid resolution” (701-series) upon adoption.
The Judicial Council held an oral hearing on October 28, 2010, at New Orleans, Louisiana. The Rev. Marti Scott and Ms. Jennifer Soule appeared on behalf of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht appeared as amicus curiae.
Jurisdiction
The Judicial Council has jurisdiction pursuant to ¶ 2610 of the 2008 Discipline.
Analysis and Rationale
The Northern Illinois Annual Conference request for a declaratory decision asks the Judicial Council to affirm that its definition of status and its direction to all of its standing boards are consistent with ¶ 4, Article IV of the Constitution. We are unable to do so. In reviewing any action of an Annual Conference, our inquiry considers whether the action is consistent with or in conflict with the Constitution and the Discipline. Any annual conference action that conflicts with the Constitution and the Discipline cannot be affirmed. The Discipline is a book of law governing every aspect of the life and work of the Church, including regulations relating to its temporal economy, the use and disposition of Church property and the conditions, privileges, and duties of Church membership. Under ¶ 604, an Annual Conference is authorized to adopt for its own government, rules and regulations that are not in conflict with the Discipline. The proposed direction to the standing boards of the Annual Conference conflicts with the Discipline and is, therefore, impermissible. An Annual Conference may not legally ignore, negate, or violate provisions of the Discipline even when they are based upon conscientious disagreements with its provisions. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference has undertaken to define “status” on the belief that it is required to do so. The source of this belief is based on previous decisions of the Judicial Council, including Decision 702 and 1020, relating to the need to define “status” for specific purposes. Although Decision 702 was handed down in 1993, some annual conferences saw no need for urgency in adopting a definition of “status.” The issue has arisen anew in the context of the Church’s process of discernment concerning inclusive membership. In addition to this request for a declaratory decision, the Northern Illinois Annual Conference has requested three other declaratory decisions with each such request focused upon the issue of inclusive membership. Decision 544 has been cited as the seminal case relating to the need for annual conferences to define status. The 1984 General Conference referred an item of proposed legislation to the Judicial Council for a determination of its constitutionality. The legislation in question related to the ability of the General Conference to establish standards, conditions and qualifications for admission into ordained ministry. In finding the basic proposal to be constitutional, the Judicial Council noted that the legislation lacked a specific definition and that the Church processes to be applied, in the event the legislation was adopted, required terms to be adequately defined. The specific holding of Decision 544 was limited to the constitutionality of the proposed legislation. In Decision 702, the Judicial Council held that an annual conference must make all determinations that affect changes in ministerial standing. The prohibition of an appointment to clergy members must be exercised in compliance with the rights of all persons who are full members of an Annual Conference. In order to do that, the Judicial Council held that the words “status” and “self avowed practicing homosexual” must be defined by either the General Conference or by the various annual conferences. Because the record then presented lacked any indication that “status” had ever been defined by the annual conference, the bishop’s decision of law was reversed and the cause was remanded to the Annual Conference and to the General Conference for further action. In Decision 845, the Judicial Council was asked to determine the constitutionality of ¶ 65.C of the 1996 Discipline upon a request from two separate annual conferences concerning whether sexual orientation constitutes a “status” and other related questions. In its analysis and rationale, the Judicial Council held the following:
In regard to the issue of whether sexual orientation constitutes a status, this council said in Decision 702 that the word ‘status’ must be defined by either the General Conference or by the various Annual Conferences. In this decision, the council declares that for the sake of consistency, the word ‘status’ must be defined by the General Conference.
Although Decision 845 discussed issues of “status,” it ultimately decided that the specific questions raised by the annual conferences did not need to be addressed. Decision 845 found that ¶ 65.C of the 1996 Discipline was constitutional. Decision 845 also included an invitation for the General Conference to define the word “status” as contained in the Constitution citing the need for consistency and uniformity. The Judicial Council determined that the General Conference must define “status” for the Church. In Decision 1020, the Judicial Council determined that an Annual Conference definition of “status” did not void, violate, or otherwise pre-empt the force of law of ¶ 304.3 of the 2004 Discipline. Decision 1020 cites the holding in Decision 702 but overlooks the subsequent holding of Decision 845. That failure to cite the holding of Decision 845 was unfortunate and has left the Church with the impression that the definition of “status” can be made by either the General Conference or by the various annual conferences. Stripped to its essence, Decision 1020 affirms that an annual conference definition of “status” does not nullify the force of law of ¶ 304.3. In all of these cases, the underlying principle focused upon the applicability of and the force of law of the Discipline in reference to meeting qualifications for admission into or continuation within the ordained ministry. The discussion of “status” has centered upon those who hold or who seek ministerial membership in an annual conference. The new debate and focus of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference action concerns “status” as it pertains to inclusive membership. None of the decisions cited by the interested parties or by amicus curiae provide authoritative guidance on the issues raised by the request for declaratory decision now before us. In part due to the lack of clarity of previous Judicial Council decisions, annual conferences have equated the need to define “status” with respect to qualifications for ministerial office with the desire to ascertain the meaning and definition of “status” as referenced in ¶ 4, Article IV of the Constitution, relating to inclusiveness of the Church. Although the inclusiveness goal of the Church stems from a common understanding that is consistent with Christ’s open invitation to all persons, the General Conference has chosen to differentiate between paths to ordination for ministerial members and paths to membership for professing and baptized members. Having set apart the ministerial office for special service and ministry, the General Conference is fully authorized to do so. We see no evidence in the record presented that the Northern Illinois Annual Conference has previously defined the word “status.” The 2010 session of the Annual Conference defined “status” to include sexual orientation and transgender identity. Having specified those two characteristics alone, the Annual Conference has chosen to exclude all others. We believe that the Annual Conference intended to adopt a more expansive definition to encompass the many aspects and expressions of “status.” We now hold that the problems attendant upon a system of varied and various definitions mitigate against the further sanctioning of a continued laissez-faire approach. The process of discernment and definition of “status” by the Church is one that can only be resolved by the deliberative processes of the General Conference. Under the Constitution, the General Conference has full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional. Words and phrases contained in the Constitution that require definition must be adequately defined by the General Conference. An Annual Conference may define disciplinary terms as may be necessary to fulfill and carry out its mission, however, constitutional terms must be defined by the General Conference in order to provide a clear and uniform standard of meaning. We determine that the definition of “status” as pertains to membership is a matter distinctively connectional that is within the sole province of the General Conference. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference definition and direction to its standing boards is hereby determined to be null, void, and of no effect.

Decision

Under ¶ 16, Article IV of the Constitution, the General Conference has full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional. Words and phrases contained in the Constitution that require definition must be adequately defined by the General Conference. An Annual Conference may define disciplinary terms as may be necessary to fulfill and carry out its mission; however, constitutional terms must be defined by the General Conference in order to provide a clear and uniform standard of meaning.

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