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Courts siding with United Methodist Church in disaffiliation process

Courts siding with United Methodist Church in disaffiliation process

Conference News

As The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church prepares for the vote on April 22 on the request of 55 churches to disaffiliate from the denomination, it does so against the backdrop of the latest court decision that says those churches must follow agreed-upon guidelines through the process.

The Eighth Judicial Circuit Court in Starke granted the Conference's motion to dismiss a lawsuit by The National Center for Life and Liberty, a non-Methodist legal nonprofit, representing 71 Florida United Methodist churches that wanted to circumvent the approved procedure for disaffiliation.

It was the third legal setback to challenges about the disaffiliation requirements for churches wishing to leave the United Methodist Church.

The decision is in line with rulings in other states about the validity of the lawsuit claims.

NORTH CAROLINA. On March 20. Superior Court Judge Richard L. Doughton dismissed a lawsuit brought by 38 churches against the Western North Carolina Conference.

The Conference noted, "As affirmed by The United Methodist Church's Judicial Council, churches wishing to disaffiliate from the Western NC Conference and The United Methodist Church may do so through the established and affirmed processes as laid out in paragraph 2553 of The Book of Discipline. The Western NC Conference is committed to working with each church moving through the approved processes with fairness and grace."

LOUISIANA. On March 29, a Louisiana judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging the disaffiliation regulations, ruling that he had no jurisdiction to decide a matter related to church government.
"Besides the First Amendment arguments, which clearly applied in this case, the Louisiana Conference strongly believes that our disaffiliation process is faithful to the Book of Discipline and fair to all congregations entering discernment,"

Bishop Delores J. Williamston said. "We love and respect those who brought this action to the courts and will continue to ensure this process is carried out fairly and faithfully."

Similar lawsuits are pending in other states, including North Georgia and Pennsylvania.

Florida judge agrees to follow “mandatory deference”

The Florida lawsuit sought to relieve those churches from financial obligations established at the 2019 General Conference. It gave churches the right to disaffiliate if they believed the denomination's move toward inclusion of LGBTQ+ people was inconsistent with biblical teaching.

Departing churches can keep their land and buildings, which previously would have reverted to the Conference where they reside. However, they are required to pay two years of apportionments and other costs.

The procedure, known as Paragraph 2553, is laid out in The Book of Discipline, the governing document for all United Methodist churches.

Judge George Wright agreed with the argument by Conference attorney Greg Hearing that it would be a First Amendment violation to have a secular court overturn church doctrine. Florida, he noted, uses the "mandatory deference approach" on these matters.

That requires the courts to "defer to and enforce the decision of the highest ecclesiastical body to which the matter has been carried."

He added that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected "entangling courts in consideration of doctrinal matters."
Florida Conference Bishop Tom Berlin said he was grateful that many churches chose to follow the provisions of Paragraph 2553.

"Amid this fractious debate, we remain prayerful and respectful for the process and thankful for the legal team that so ably represents the Conference," he said.

"While we are sorry to see any member church depart, we also note that more than 40 churches have withdrawn as plaintiffs from the litigation since it was originally filed. They have decided instead to pursue the more collaborative process under Paragraph 2553 of The Book of Discipline."

Special Annual Conference virtual session set for April 22

While Saturday's special meeting, beginning at 10 a.m., will be available to everyone via live stream, only members chosen by their individual churches can vote on whether to allow any or all of the 55 churches to formally disaffiliate.

The motions will pass or fail by a simple majority and become effective on June 1.

Those churches wishing to leave have followed guidelines requiring them to discuss the issue with their district superintendent first. After that, there is an open discussion in church and prayer as members seek discernment about what to do.

It takes a two-thirds vote of professing members at a special church conference to proceed with disaffiliation. Only professing members are eligible to vote. 

Previously, 17 churches were approved to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church under Paragraph 2553. Most churches that have left or plan to leave say that the possibility that The Book of Discipline could be amended at the next
General Conference to allow for the ordination of LGBTQ+ people is a bridge too far.

More churches are expected to seek disaffiliation in two other special sessions later this year as they complete the requirements laid out by the Conference.

"(There is) a lot of fear that the church is going to have to do something (you oppose), that your pastor is going to have to do a same-gender marriage, your church will have to receive a gay clergyperson. I'm the Bishop of the Florida Conference, and that is never going to happen," Bishop Berlin said.

"The primary thing that defines us is our desire to serve Jesus Christ in the world. In the same way, you don't judge your members who have been divorced and remarried, even though there is scripture about it. It's the same when a young couple comes to you and says they want to be married and they're already living together. You probably don't make them live apart for a time."

Joe Henderson is the News Content Editor for

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