The top court of the United Methodist Church gave the green light Friday for the denomination to continue moving forward on its controversial plan to reaffirm bans on same-sex marriages and ordaining lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — and tougher penalties on clergy who disobey them.
It also approved legislation creating a more streamlined exit strategy for churches that want to leave the denomination.
The church’s judicial council, meeting in Evansville, Ind., reviewed the package of legislation passed at its general conference on human sexuality in February.
While theologically conservative Methodists were pleased with the rulings, the court’s decisions cemented the resolve of Methodist congregations considering leaving the denomination over its stance.
“Regardless of the judicial outcome, most of us feel that the harm has already been done,” said the Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard of Hamline Church United Methodist in St. Paul. “The path to division is already laid out before us. The judicial council decision may tell us a little bit about how it unfolds.”
The court review comes two months after a United Methodist Church (UMC) General Conference on sexuality in St. Louis in late February voted against a plan that would end the denomination’s LGBT restrictions. Instead, conference members voted to continue the bans and enact stricter penalties for clergy members who violate them.
That so-called traditional plan had the backing of conservative UMC members and much of the global church.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a U.S. group of the theologically conservative, is among those who supported the February plan as well as this week’s judicial council ruling.
The plan “is an attempt to restore good order to the church,” said a statement on the association’s website. “The plan continues the church’s long-standing welcome to all persons to participate in the ministries of the UM Church.”
Bishop Bruce Ough, UMC bishop for Minnesota and the Dakotas, said the court’s decision marks an important juncture for the church.
“I do think this is the next phase,” said Ough. “I believe the UMC is undergoing a great transformation. What it will look like, we don’t know at this point.”
The LGBT restrictions have sparked organized opposition across Minnesota and the nation. The Rev. Judy Zabel of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis has been a leader in organizing Minnesota discussions and events about “next steps” for Methodists who disagree with the plan.
Zabel said she was pleased to have the court clarify the process of exiting the denomination. Under the ruling, churches could disaffiliate if two-thirds of their members agree to it and if the church meets certain financial and pension obligations.
Individual clergy and churches across the state have been launching their own protests since the traditional plan was approved.
Excelsior United Methodist Church, for example, put up a series of rainbow-colored doors in front of the church with the words “God’s Doors Are Open To All.”
“We wanted to distinguish ourselves and make sure that people know what we stood for,” said the Rev. Brooke Heerwald Steiner, the church’s pastor.
Clergy who disobey the bans would be subject to new penalties under provisions approved by the court. Those penalties are a year’s suspension without pay for the first offense and dismissal from conference membership for a second offense.
The UMC court did not uphold every provision in the plan. Legislation that would require church lay leaders to follow the LGBT provisions were ruled unconstitutional, as was a provision for increased accountability for bishops.
The provisions go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.