Defenders of the faith
Battles over homosexuality divide the United Methodist Church
A protracted legal and cultural battle—pitting local leaders of the United Methodist Church against a renegade congregation that opposes the church’s more moderate views on homosexuality—came to an abrupt conclusion last month, one that could set a legal precedent for future religious disputes.
Headquartered in West Sacramento, the California-Nevada Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) is the organizing body for some 90,000 members throughout the two states. The Methodist equivalent to a Catholic diocese, the conference covers an area as far south as Bakersfield and includes a diverse membership from the Bay Area to Reno. But the conference no longer includes the former St. Luke’s UMC in Fresno, which rewrote language in its trust clause taking ownership of its property. That maneuver kicked off a four-year legal battle that ended last month when the state Supreme Court in Sacramento refused to hear a UMC petition challenging an earlier appeals-court ruling in favor of St. Luke’s.
Sacramento attorney Robert Shannon, who represented the UMC in the case, called the case a “doctrinal dispute” that has no legal precedent. And he says it could have a considerable impact on similar conflicts between California churches and their regional overseers.
“When they didn’t get their way down there, they just locked the UMC out of the church property,” Shannon said, adding that the state Supreme Court’s decision may induce other individual California churches to attempt to break away in a similar fashion. In the future, he said, “churches will now have a very clear picture of who’s with them and who’s against them. There’s no longer a legal framework to keep them in unless the local churches truly desire it. I don’t think I want to speculate on why this [decision] came about. I don’t think there’s any proper legal basis for it. It’s heresy for me to say that as a lawyer. But there you have it.”
Bishop Beverly Shamana, leader of the California-Nevada Conference, called the court’s decision “disturbing.”
“It was really frustrating to think that we had spent so much time and effort in trying to reverse the decision of the appeals court,” Shamana told SN&R, bemoaning “the recognition that all of our efforts were futile.”
Of the Fresno church, now known as St. Luke’s Community Church, pastor Kevin Smith says his parishioners were dissatisfied with UMC leadership being too tolerant on gay marriage, particularly with clergy who participated in those ceremonies.
“What I have seen in the church of late, there’s been a lot of time spent talking about the love of God, but it’s really been unbalanced,” Smith told SN&R. “We’ll talk about how God loves the individual, and God certainly does. But we forget that he gave us his life to free us from the power of sin.”
When St. Luke’s first severed ties to the church, it also stopped paying apportionments to the UMC. Those payments, which support the wider church ministry, totaled some $150,000 annually. To add insult to injury, St. Luke’s parishioners also opted to change the language in their legal deed to the property, literally taking their church with them.
Maintaining that St. Luke’s did not have legal grounds to do so, the California-Nevada Conference sued and, in 2002, won a Superior Court decision enforcing its ownership of the property. But that decision was reversed by the 5th District Court of Appeal last fall, and on December 1, the state Supreme Court denied the California-Nevada Conference’s petition for review. The court decision means that St. Luke’s now owns the building, free and clear, and that existing state trust laws governing church properties are not as ironclad as once believed.
Smith noted that St. Luke’s tried to negotiate a buyout to avoid a legal battle but that the conference refused. The UMC did not negotiate, explained Shannon, because it felt the law was on its side.
Shamana said sexuality is often a “hot-button issue” for a moderate Christian denomination like the UMC, which has prided itself on inclusiveness and tolerance since it first blossomed in America back in the 18th century. Like the nation, the UMC has struggled to come to terms with issues like slavery and women’s suffrage, and it’s now doing so with gay marriage.
“As a nation, quite frankly, we are still trying to come to terms with the sexuality that God has given us as a good gift,” said Shamana. She then went on to quote the church’s Book of Discipline—its fundamental guiding tome detailing everything from laws and doctrines to procedures and matters of faith—on the UMC’s stance on human sexuality: “We believe persons will be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church and society.”
Few issues draw more rhetoric and invective than gay marriage, which continues to inspire fevered debate from increasingly polarized sides. But caught in the middle, and easily overlooked, are moderate Christians who find balancing enduring values with contemporary cultural issues a task worthy of Job.
The Rev. Karen Oliveto, whose UMC church in San Francisco had as many gay as straight members in its congregation, stepped into the crossfire following Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision last year to allow gay marriage in San Francisco. Faced with abiding by existing church doctrine forbidding gay marriage or supporting her parishioners, she chose the latter and began marrying same-sex couples. A complaint filed afterward launched a seven-month-long review of her ministry.
“The church split over slavery,” said Oliveto, who went on to accept a position as assistant dean at Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion for reasons she’s said are unrelated to being placed on review. “It split over women’s issues. We struggle with the same issues our culture struggles with.”
Although Newsom’s decision to let gay couples wed touched off a firestorm of media coverage, the UMC was five years ahead of him. On January 16, 1999, 68 UMC clergy members presided over a lesbian wedding in Sacramento and soon became known as the “Sacramento 68.” An Orangevale member filed a complaint against them and Melvin Talbert, then bishop of the California-Nevada Conference, alleging “disobedience to the order and discipline” of the church. Following an investigation of the ceremony, church authorities dismissed the charge the following year.
While Oliveto considered that decision a historic victory, Smith told SN&R that, for him and his congregation, it was “the last straw.” Viewing the refusal to bring charges against the Sacramento group as an implicit endorsement of gay marriage, St. Luke’s no longer wished to be a UMC. “They just winked at the rules,” Smith said.
Smith believes to this day that the church should have taken a stronger stand against gay marriage and sanctioned the Sacramento 68. He feels the church leadership ignored its own rules in the Book of Discipline, where Section 304.3 reads, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
However, the Book of Discipline also recognizes the humanity of persons who are homosexual and has no sanctions against them attending services or participating in church activities.
The church’s supreme body, known as the General Conference, meets every four years to address issues and modify language in the Book of Discipline, if necessary. Language saying that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” was retained at last year’s General Conference in Pittsburgh, despite demonstrations in which protesters broke a communion chalice to make their point.
The Rev. Jay Pierce of Sacramento’s Central United Methodist Church says he has no problem with gays in his congregation, adding that he’s more interested in helping them get God into their lives. He feels that religious institutions have much larger issues to address. Anytime you have “sex and the church,” he said, it feeds a controversy, but there are prevailing human issues—namely poverty, education and ignorance—that can be fought on a unanimous front. “The question is how do we bring people closer to God?” said Pierce. “We’ve got a lot more to be concerned with.”
Shamana expresses the same desire to move forward, but she still regrets the state Supreme Court decision. “The secular legal community has overruled our Book of Discipline with its interpretation of a California corporation code,” Shamana declared in a statement after the decision. “This is disconcerting. But it does not stop ministry. It does not sever the body of Christ.”
Smith, meanwhile, insists his St. Luke’s is open to all—gay or straight—and says it’s not his place to judge gays, but rather to help them fight sin. Still, he can’t resist one last critique of the bishop whose conference decisions, he says, made it impossible for him to ethically remain a Methodist.
“Bishop Shamana is proclaiming she’s going be faithful to the Book of Discipline, yet she continues to use a name—Shamana—which she said she chose to honor Native American doctrine," said Smith. "I’m just fascinated with how you can preach the good news of Jesus and yet pay homage to a religion that stands in opposition to him."