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The 2012 edition of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

Finance agency can grant same-gender benefits, court says

By Linda Bloom
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (UMNS), April 28, 2014

By virtue of its own authority, the finance agency of The United Methodist Church can provide benefits for same-gender spouses of general agency employees.

That was one of the decisions reached by the United Methodist Judicial Council during its April 23-26 spring session.

The denomination’s top court also upheld a bishop’s decision that a certified clergy candidate should be allowed the opportunity for an interview regardless of sexual orientation and modified another bishop’s decision regarding a marriage equality resolution from the Desert Southwest Annual (regional) Conference.

Two Judicial Council lay members, Beth Capen and Ruben T. Reyes, were unable to be present at the Little Rock meeting. Participating instead were two elected lay alternates, Sandra Lutz of Canton, Ohio, and Randall Miller of Oakland, Calif.

Benefits for same-gender spouses

Directors of the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration voted Oct. 21, 2013, to expand the definition of spouse in the General Agencies Welfare Benefits Program to include same-gender spouses recognized by a state as being legally married to the employee and civil partners who had state recognition for being the legal partner of an employee.

At that time, Bishop Michael J. Coyner, the finance agency’s president, explained the action was taken “to make policy decisions that stay in conformity with both civil and church law.”

The board also took a second action requesting “a declaratory decision” from the Judicial Council on whether the policy would violate Paragraph 806.9 in the 2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book.

The paragraph prohibits United Methodist funds from being given “to any gay caucus or group,” from being used to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or violate the church’s commitment “not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.”

In Decision 1264, Judicial Council ruled that by its own action in adopting the policy, the finance agency had “determined that the use of general agency funds to subsidize premium costs for employees and their same-gendered spouses enrolled in the General Agencies Welfare Benefits Program” did not violate church law.

General agencies are not considered a gay caucus or group, the ruling said, and previous Judicial Council decisions have upheld the authority of the finance agency to determine for itself whether contributing to employee benefits would constitute promoting the acceptance of homosexuality.

Two concurring opinions, each signed by several Judicial Council members, addressed broader aspects of the decision.

One concurrence noted that statements in the denomination’s Social Principles about human rights, values and health care, along with the resolution, “Health Care for All in the United States,” in the 2012 Book of Resolutions, “form the moral and ethical framework for the action taken by the GCFA.”

“It is a matter of simple justice to protect basic rights of all people, regardless of sexual orientation,” said the concurrence, signed by the Rev. Katherine Austin Mahle, Angela Brown, Miller and Lutz. “This is not the same as ‘promoting the acceptance of homosexuality.’”

The other concurrence — signed by the Rev. F. Belton Joyner Jr., the Rev. Dennis Blackwell and N. Oswald Tweh Jr. — agreed with the council’s decision but felt it “failed to address fully the questions raised” in what they considered to be three requests for deliberation from the finance agency.

One outcome, they suggested, is that Decision 1264 “…does not assure that the policy might not be questioned again or that disciplinary provisions might be changed.”

Interviewing clergy candidates

After an October 2013 ruling by the Judicial Council, San Antonio Area Bishop James Dorff issued a decision about whether a candidate who happens to be a lesbian could be discontinued as a certified clergy candidate without an interview and examination by the conference’s board of ordained ministry.

Church law declares all people are of sacred worth but states that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and bans “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from “being certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

Dorff’s decision that Mary Ann Barclay remain  a candidate for ministry after approval by a district committee was affirmed by the council in Decision 1263, which noted that the issue was one of process and that the “sexual orientation and practices of the candidate are irrelevant for determining the matter.”

None of the conditions in the Book of Discipline under which a certified candidate may be discontinued was met in this case, the council said in its analysis. Records show the responsibility of the district committee on ordained ministry to submit the names of individuals being recommended for provisional membership was met.

“When a district committee on ordained ministry recommends a candidate for election to provisional membership, the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry shall include a personal interview with the candidate as part of its full examination of the candidate in order to determine his/her fitness for election to provisional membership,” the decision said.

“As this disciplinary point was ignored by the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, the candidate remains a certified candidate for ordained ministry.”

Validity of marriage equality resolution

The Judicial Council modified a decision of law by Phoenix Area Bishop Robert T. Hoshibata upholding the “Marriage Equality Resolution” passed by the Desert Southwest Annual (regional) Conference in June 2013.

The resolution’s statement of facts deplores that denial of “full access” to the rights and privileges of The United Methodist Church is causing “deep spiritual harm to our LGBT brothers and sisters.” 

The first “resolved” section of the resolution, which calls upon the conference and its churches to make a public statement supporting marriage equality, does not violate church law, the council ruled in Decision 1262, because it is “a legitimate appeal as an aspiration in form and content.”

However, the council found the resolution’s second “resolved” section, to be “null, void and of no effect” because it encourages a violation of church law by declaring support to clergy engaged in specific chargeable offenses — “conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies where it is civically legal to do so.”

“For this case, an important precedent was established in Judicial Council Decision 1111,” the council wrote, “which states, ‘An annual conference may not negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based on conscientious objections to the provisions.’”

The third “resolved” section of the conference’s marriage equality resolution offers support to clergy brought up on charges because of their involvement with homosexual unions or same-sex weddings. “But the text of the resolution as adopted by the conference does not clearly state whether supporting someone ‘spiritually, emotionally, and prayerfully’ while that person faces charges for violating Church law is to be understood as limiting the support to those specific forms,” the court’s decision pointed out.

The council ruled the third “resolved section” to be “within Church law to the extent that its definition of supporting someone ‘spiritually, emotionally and prayerfully’ is understood not to ignore, negate or violate church law.”

In other business

In other business, a decision by New Jersey Area Bishop John Schol regarding the status of a nonprofit established to assist those affected by Superstorm Sandy was affirmed by the Judicial Council in Decision 1261.

Last fall, in Decision 1959, Judicial Council had requested further documentation on whether the nonprofit corporation, A Future With Hope, was an agency of the Greater New Jersey Conference. Judicial Council member Blackwell, a clergy member of that conference, recused himself from decisions related to A Future With Hope. A clergy alternate member, the Rev. Timothy K. Bruster, replaced him in those deliberations.

In a matter involving requests for a decision of law related to the Philippines Central Conference, the council required, in Memorandum 1260, that it receive specified paperwork by June 1.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.or contact her at (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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