Wednesday, March 11, 1998
Kearney, Nebraska -- A jury of 13 United Methodist ministers - nine men and four women - has been selected in the church trial of Rev. Jimmy Creech. Rev. Creech is on trial for conducting a covenant ceremony between two women at First United Methodist Church in Omaha last September. He is charged with disobeying the "Order and Discipline" of the United Methodist Church for "conducting a homosexual union" and for conducting a "ritual" outside the "form and mode of worship".
The trial convened today at First United Methodist Church in Kearney with about 150 people in attendance. Nebraska Bishop Joel Martinez opened the proceedings with a prayer, saying, "The wider society is watching and waiting." National, state and local media, including CNN, as well as a number of other participants from across the country have converged on this church in central Nebraska. Cameras are barred from the trial, but an artist sketches the proceedings, and photographers lining the hallways capture images, which are then beamed out to world by satellite trucks waiting in the parking lot.
Retired Bishop Leroy Hodapp of Indiana who presided over the proceedings explained that a church trial, while similar to a civil trial, follows rules set forth in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. For jury selection, the Church and Rev. Creech had to narrow a pool of 35 United Methodist ministers down to a jury of 13 members and 2 alternates. Each side could make four pre-emptory strikes - in other words, they could exclude four people automatically. Each side could also exclude jurors for "cause" - in other words, by showing a good reason for doing so. The 35 ministers drew numbers from a hat. Once all the strikes were decided, the ministers with the top 15 numbers would become the 13 jurors and two alternates.
Bishop Hodapp asked all 35 ministers whether they could set aside things they had read or heard about this case to make a fair decision based solely the evidence. He also asked if they could set aside any prejudices to make a fair decision.
Then it was the Church's turn. Church counsel Rev. Lauren Ekdahl asked the 35 ministers: Were any of you unaware that a complaint had been filed against Jimmy Creech before you were asked to sit on this jury? No one raised his hand. How many of you have read or seen news accounts of this trial, and could you set those things aside? Everyone raised their hands. Other questions included: Who knows Jimmy Creech, and would that influence your decision this trial? Do you have a strong opinion on what the outcome of this trial should be? If you were asked to perform a union ceremony between two women or two men, what would you do?
Then it was Jimmy's turn. Rev. Creech's counsel Rev. Doug Williamson started with a number of questions about the Church Discipline and Social Principles. "Have any of you ever considered the Social Principles binding?" No one raised his hand. "Have any of you ever filed a complaint against another Methodist pastor?" No hands raised.
Williamson then asked whether a United Methodist minister can perform only those rituals that are the official rituals of the United Methodist Church. No one in the jury pool responded that a minister is restricted to only those rituals found in the Hymnal and the Book of Worship.
Williamson told the potential jurors that this case would require a basic understanding of the differences between "gender" and "sexuality". Everyone on the jury pool agreed that "human sexuality is a complex gift". Then Williamson asked, "Have any of you struggled with issues of human sexuality in your own life or with family or friends? This question elicited a great deal of response. One woman talked about her sister who is a lesbian, and how she and her family struggled with issues of sexuality. A man said that when he was in the seminary, three friends confided in him that they were homosexuals. He said that two of those students later became ordained ministers. Another man who was once a military chaplain said he had counseled gays struggling with their sexuality. Another woman said she had once let a friend down who had confided that she was a lesbian. The woman said she had been too busy to deal with her friend's struggle and later lost that friendship because of her neglect. To this day, the woman she regrets it, and said if she could do things over, she would love her friend no matter what.
Williamson wrapped up his line of questioning by asking the 35 ministers whether any of them had heard from people who threatened to withdraw pledges if Jimmy Creech were not found guilty. Several ministers said they had heard such threats. And finally, Williamson asked whether any ministers on the pool had participated in any protests against Rev Creech? Several had.
Each side took its four preemptory strikes, knocking eight potential jurors from the pool. Neither side struck any jurors for cause. Bishop Hodapp then named the ministers with the top 15 numbers as the 13 jurors and 2 alternates. The trial of Jimmy Creech will reconvene Thursday morning, beginning with opening testimony from the Church.
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