Conservative United Methodists are relieved, but not overconfident, after the recent ruling by the church's highest court that a prohibition against ministers performing same-sex unions for homosexuals is binding church law.

"We cannot be too jubilant," says James V. Heidinger II, executive director of Good News, the oldest conservative coalition of United Methodists, based in Wilmore, Kentucky. "We know the fight is not over. But it is a bit of encouragement that we have at least clarified this."

After a special session in August in Dallas, the nine-member United Methodist Judicial Council ruled that a statement saying ministers "shall not" conduct homosexual unions is ecclesiastical law. Methodist delegates approved the statement at the 1996 general conference in Denver.

"Conduct in violation of this prohibition renders a pastor liable to a charge of disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church," the decision states.

Heidinger expects more battles, though. The 8.5 million-member church is deeply split over the issue, he says, noting that 240 United Methodist ministers earlier this year signed statements saying they would conduct same-sex unions if asked.

"I'm going to guess someone will try ecclesiastical disobedience and push a test case," he says.

CREECH VERDICT FOLLOW-UP: Controversy over the ban erupted when Jimmy Creech, former pastor of the First United Church of Omaha, Nebraska, was narrowly acquitted in a church trial earlier this year after he defied the church's ban and conducted a same-sex ceremony (CT, April 27, 1998, p. 14).

Conservative groups roundly condemned the jury's verdict (CT, June 15, 1998, p. 15), and several Methodist bishops asked the Judicial Council to review the case.

During the council's hearing, Creech and his supporters made emotional pleas, arguing that the prohibition was merely advisory. It appears in the Social Principles section of the Book of Discipline, the Methodist book of rules. And Creech said the Social Principles historically have been considered advisory.

Creech's attorney, Mike McLellan of Omaha, argued that enforcing the ban would mean church leaders would be forced to invade the privacy of individuals. "Don't allow the church to be drawn into a witch-hunt over this," McLellan said.

Speaking to council members, Bishops Bruce Blake of Oklahoma City and Dan Solomon of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, argued that if the edict were ruled "advisory," it would call into question the entire disciplinary system of the nation's second-largest Protestant group.

"This embraces the very integrity of the denomination," Blake says.

"Integrity means following a code. The strength of the United Methodist Church is that we have a code that binds us together." Blake and Solomon represented the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops, which had requested the ruling.

In pondering its ruling, council members gave much weight to the "shall not" language of the same-sex union ban. Also, they cited the democratic nature of the general conference to make laws. They declared the statement is clearly prohibitory "notwithstanding its placement" in the Social Principles.

WARNING TO VIOLATORS: The ruling puts pressure on church liberals, such as Bishop Melvin Talbert of San Francisco. He has not disciplined ministers in the California-Nevada conference who have conducted same-sex unions.

Talbert says he is "deeply saddened" by the ruling, but he will abide by the discipline and action of the Judicial Council. No action will be taken against ministers who have performed same-sex ceremonies in the past, Talbert notes.

Creech is urging ministers to defy the ruling. "The church of John Wesley, founded upon principles of social justice and piety, will now be prosecuting pastors for praying God's blessing upon same-sex couples who make covenants of love and fidelity," Creech says. He is hoping those who disagree with the prohibition will organize to change it at the next general conference in 2000.

SECOND-CLASS STATUS? Homosexual-rights activists are discouraged by the ruling. "This is a sad day for United Methodism," says Mark Bowman of Chicago, director of a nationwide Reconciling Churches program for 150 congregations that intentionally reach out to homosexuals.

"Lesbian and gay persons continue to be second-class members of United Methodist churches," Bowman says. "They can sit in the pew and give their money, but their loving relationships cannot be recognized."

But United Methodist bishops who backed the ruling say it does not mean homosexuals are not welcome. The ruling simply proclaims the validity of a church statement adopted by the general conference, the church's highest legislative body, they say.

Another advocate for homosexual rights, Kathryn Johnson of Washington, D.C., president of the Methodist Federation for Social Concerns, says the church is regressing.

"At a time in history when gay and lesbian persons are gaining … greater acceptance in society, it is tragic that the United Methodist Church would be a place where they cannot experience full acceptance."

Conservatives hope the decision signals a trend in the denomination. "This issue has been debated a long time, and this ruling makes it unquestionably clear what the position of the church is," says Dean Posey, a United Methodist pastor in Bedford, Texas.

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