11:16 a.m. EDT June 22: Opening arguments, witnesses begin
“Clear and convincing evidence” will show the Rev. Amy DeLong has transgressed her covenant as a clergy member, the counsel representing The United Methodist Church said in his opening arguments.
DeLong’s counsel contended in his opening arguments that the case is not that simple.
DeLong, a lesbian clergywoman in Wisconsin, is undergoing a church trial to respond to two charges. One charge is that she violated the denomination’s ban on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and the other charge is that she violated the church’s bar against clergy officiating at same-sex unions. DeLong pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The trial officially started at 12:30 p.m. June 21 in the basement of Peace United Methodist Church in Kaukauna, Wis.
“What is really at stake here is whether we as clergy will live in integrity under the terms of a covenant that we voluntarily agreed to,” the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the church’s counsel, told the jury, known as a trial court in United Methodist parlance. Lambrecht is the pastor of Faith Community Church, a United Methodist congregation in Greenville, Wis.
“Rev. DeLong had the choice of living with integrity within the qualifications and requirements of our clergy covenant or of honorably withdrawing from that covenant when she found she could no longer live within it,” he said. “Instead Rev. DeLong has chosen to willfully violate the terms of our covenant and yet still seek to remain within it.”
DeLong’s counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell, said that DeLong does not dispute officiating at “a sacred service of covenant” for two women on Sept. 19, 2009. He argued that doing so was in keeping with the “highest laws” in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book.
Campbell, an elder in the New England Annual (regional) Conference, also said DeLong’s defense will not dispute that DeLong is a lesbian and she has been with her partner, Val Zellmer, for 16 years. But, he said, DeLong has never “self-avowed” to a bishop or district superintendent anything that happens in the privacy of her relationship.
“Some of this may feel like nit-picking to you, and I can understand that,” Campbell told the trial court. “We are forced into such conversation because of the way the law of our church defines homosexual relationships.”
Retired Bishop Clay Foster Lee Jr., the trial’s presiding officer, opened the proceedings by reminding those gathered in the improvised courtroom that they were gathered not as a civil court but as the church.
“Being the church,” he said, “we are called to a higher standard.”
After the opening arguments, the church’s counsel started his case.
Lambrecht first called the Rev. Steve Polster, assistant to the Wisconsin Conference’s Bishop Linda Lee, who is no relation to the presiding officer. Polster testified that he first learned DeLong had officiated at a “holy union for a lesbian couple” when she reported it as part of her annual extension ministry report. The union was the fifth bullet item in her report.
DeLong leads Kairos CoMotion, an education group on progressive theological issues, and in that role, sends a report each year of ministerial activities.
Polster testified that he discussed with DeLong why she chose to bless a same-sex union.
“I think she said it was the right thing to do,” Polster testified. “She said she had never been asked before or she might have officiated at one earlier.”
He also testified that DeLong told him during their discussion that “she was in a committed relationship and (had) taken steps to document that relationship.”
“I saw she was being forthcoming about who she was and what the relationship was,” Polster said.
Lambrecht asked if he would characterize DeLong’s actions as a violation of the Book of Discipline.
“I would, yes,” Polster said. Conference leaders, he said, started a supervisory action to address the alleged violation.
In the cross-examination, Campbell asked whether at any point DeLong was asked about her sexual practices.
“I don’t recall any conversation about sexual practices,” he said.
Lambrecht next called the Rev. Jorge Mayorga Solis, who as the district superintendent overseeing the conference’s extension ministries is DeLong’s supervisor.
Mayorga Solis testified that DeLong gave him documents that showed the same-sex unionservice at which she officiated was similar in wording and structure to the wedding service in the United Methodist Book of Worship. The ceremony included a blessing, vows, exchange of rings, lighting of unity candle and introduction of the couple.
DeLong also told her district superintendent of her domestic partnership. In May 2010, Mayorga Solis issued a formal complaint against DeLong.
As her supervisor, he said, “it was my responsibility to do it.” He did so, he said, “with a heavy heart.”
However, he testified that he thought the holy union and her domestic partnership were both violations of the Book of Discipline.
“My understanding is that it is something sacred,” Mayorga Solis said. “When we are ordained, I believe we enter into covenant to uphold church laws.”
Campbell’s cross-examination of Mayorga Solis will begin in the morning.