April 13, 1998

Judicial Council Defers Homosexuality Question

By United Methodist News Service

The United Methodist Church's supreme court will not consider a question about the denomination's prohibition of homosexual unions at its April 22-25 session but will take up the issue later.

The South Central Jurisdiction's College of Bishops had requested the Judicial Council deal with the issue. The church's stand on same-sex unions has been a point of intense debate since a Nebraska pastor performed such a service last fall. That pastor, the Rev. Jimmy Creech of Omaha, was acquitted by a narrow margin in a March 11-13 church trial of a charge that he violated denomination law by doing the service.

The bishops asked the Judicial Council to consider whether a statement in the church's Social Principles prohibiting such ceremonies governs the conduct of ministers, and whether a United Methodist minister's performance of a same-sex union is a chargeable offense.

The council received the bishops' request on April 8, exactly two weeks before its spring meeting begins in Seattle. In an April 9 conference call, council members discussed whether to make an exception to their rules and hear the bishops' item, even though the request was late. The council is required to publish its docket at least 30 days before each session.

"We have determined that time is inadequate to place it on the docket for our spring meeting on April 22-25, 1998," said council President Tom Matheny in a statement after the conference call. The council will decide at its spring meeting when and where it will hear the matter, he said. "Adequate notice of the time and place will be given in order for all interested parties to file briefs and be heard."

The council meets twice a year. Its next regularly scheduled meeting will be in October.

Bishop Fritz Mutti, president of the South Central College of Bishops, had submitted the request to the council. After learning of the decision, Mutti said, "We were pleased that the Judicial Council has received our petition. If it can't be dealt with at the spring meeting, we hope it will be dealt with as expeditiously as possible."

In their request, the bishops specifically quoted a statement added to the church's Social Principles by the 1996 General Conference -- the denomination's policymaking body, which meets every four years. The statement, which appears at the end of a paragraph on marriage, says:

"Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

Some people in the church have said the Social Principles are goals that do not carry the weight of church law. Others disagree. The principles are contained in the denomination's law book -- the Book of Discipline -- but they are separate from the main text.

For decades, the United Methodist Church has struggled with issues related to homosexuality. The denomination bars the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

At the Creech trial, a jury of 13 Nebraska clergy fell one vote short of the nine required to convict the pastor. Creech had performed a covenanting service for two women last September at First United Methodist Church in Omaha.

The trial's outcome spurred strong reactions from people on both sides of the issue. A number of church-related groups have asked the Council of Bishops to request a special session of the General Conference to deal with questions related to homosexuality and diversity.

However, the South Central College of Bishops' request is the first such item received by the Judicial Council since the trial.