Judicial Council looks at clergy penalty questions

How penalties imposed by trial courts were handled in two cases involving clergy was the subject of separate oral hearings in October before the United Methodist Judicial Council.

The denomination's top court, which met last fall to issue decisions on 11 docket items.

One hearing focused on the appeal of a decision of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals. The committee upheld a decision related to the Jan. 11-12, 2016, church trial of the Rev. Errol Leslie by the Florida Conference.

The trial court found Leslie — who was serving a congregation in Florida in a cross-conference appointment — guilty of charges of sexual misconduct, immorality and disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church. The court terminated his clergy membership in the New England Annual Conference.

A separate docket item related to a decision by Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, New England Conference, about a question of law in the Leslie case. In that item, the court ruled that a bishop does not have the authority to "make a substantive ruling" on what essentially is a petition for a declaratory decision.

"Questions pertaining to the constitutionality of an act of General Conference that fall within the jurisdiction of Judicial Council are beyond the scope of episcopal authority," the court wrote in Decision 1331.

A second oral hearing addressed a request by the Texas Conference for a declaratory decision on matters relating to the final disposition of a penalty imposed on the Rev. Carla Badgett after a 2012 church trial.

The Rev. Jason Burnham, speaking on Badgett's behalf, argued the Texas Conference Board of Ministry was wrong when it revoked the clergywoman's credentials three years later, after she had complied with all the requirements of the suspension. The later action gave her no recourse for appeal, he said.

Mary A. Daffin, associate chancellor of the Texas Conference, said that Judicial Council had no jurisdiction in the case. Daffin said Badgett was not deprived of a right to appeal after the trial court made its decision.

In Memorandum 1336, Judicial Council agreed that it had no jurisdiction to consider how the conference board of ordained ministry handled penalties imposed by a trial court "when the concerned clergy person did not invoke her right of appeal…"

In a case from the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference related to a trial court penalty imposed on a clergyperson, the Judicial Council referred to earlier rulings that a bishop has no authority to make substantive rulings on judicial or administrative matters.\

While a conference can ask for a declaratory decision, the court said in Decision 1337, "an individual may not circumvent that process by merely requesting the presiding bishop for a decision of law so as to trigger an automatic review by the Judicial Council; to do so undermines the procedures and safeguards set forth in the Discipline."

Linda Bloom, UMNS multimedia reporter based in New York.

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