Judicial Council reverses lower court, rules against Beth Stroud

By Neill Caldwell

HOUSTON (UMNS) - The United Methodist Judicial Council has reversed an appeals court ruling in the case of a lesbian pastor, restoring the original trial court ruling and verdict that had resulted in the minister losing her clergy credentials.

The Rev. Irene Elizabeth "Beth" Stroud, an associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Germantown, Pa., was convicted by a clergy trial court last December after stating that she was a practicing lesbian - a violation of church law, which forbids the ordination and appointment of "self-avowed practicing" homosexuals. The trial court revoked Stroud's credentials, but a jurisdictional court of appeals set aside that ruling in April. The Oct. 31 decision by the denomination's top court restores the original decision.

"The Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals erred in reversing and setting aside the verdict and penalty from Rev. Stroud's trial," the court said in its eight-page ruling.

"Stroud was accorded fair and due process rights enumerated in the (Book of) Discipline and Judicial Council decisions," the court said. "Regulation of the practice of homosexuality does not violate the 'status' provisions of the Constitution. The Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals was without jurisdiction to declare that Paragraph 304.3 established a new standard of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards."

The council also determined that the presiding officer of the original trial court "correctly stated the law of the church" in instructing the court regarding the penalty phase.

The Stroud case was one of several related to homosexuality heard by the Judicial Council at its regular fall session in Houston. Oral arguments in the case were heard Oct. 27, in a public session at First United Methodist Church of Houston's Westchase campus. Stroud attended the hearing, sitting in the front row with her partner, Chris Paige, but did not address the council.

In an Oct. 31 telephone interview, Stroud said she "will continue to stay in the United Methodist Church and work for change. Today's decision shows that the existing discrimination in the United Methodist Church is clear. There's no room to be in denial about that. But if you stay in the relationship, there is opportunity for conversation. That's the beauty of our United Methodist Church. We're all in this together."

"It's been a sad morning for us here, very tearful and emotional," she added. "My partner and my family are here with me. We wish the outcome would have been different. We thought we had a strong case, and the appeals committee thought we had a strong case."

At the oral hearing, Alan Symonette, lay leader at Stroud's church, told the council that action against Stroud was discrimination based on her status as a homosexual person. "This has everything to do with status," he said. "The church is asking gay people who are called to ministry and want to practice ministry not to admit their homosexuality." The Rev. Thomas Hall, pastor of Crossroads United Methodist Church in Chester Springs, Pa., and counsel for the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, said the case was not about Stroud, who has "wonderful pastoral gifts," but about the "clear language" in the Book of Discipline.

"This is about the authority General Conference has to determine and enforce requirements for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church," Hall told the court. "What is at stake is the very integrity of the Book of Discipline. If we lose, everyone loses."

The Book of Discipline states the United Methodist Church's belief that "all persons are individuals of sacred worth. The church is committed to be in ministry with all persons, and to support civil rights for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation." The book also states that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," and that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church."

The Judicial Council ruled that Paragraph 304.2 of the Book of Discipline "is not directed at the status of being a homosexual or having a particular sexual orientation." The court said the regulation applies to "practicing" homosexuals rather than a person's sexual orientation: "No provision of the Discipline bars a person with same-sex orientation from the ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. Rather, Paragraph 304.3 is directed toward those persons who practice that same-sex orientation by engaging in prohibited sexual activity. Likewise, persons who have a heterosexual orientation who practice that orientation in prohibited ways - by not practicing fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness as required by Paragraph 304.2 - are subject to chargeable offenses."

The council also determined that the appeals court lacked jurisdiction to determine whether or not Paragraph 304.3 establishes a new church doctrine that is contrary to established doctrine. "Such a determination would require an interpretation of doctrine which is beyond judicial authority under United Methodist polity," the ruling said.

The case began with an April 19, 2003, letter written by Stroud to her congregation in which she said she was "a lesbian living in a committed relationship with a partner," and acknowledged that the disclosure would put her "credentials as an ordained United Methodist minister at risk." She also shared the information in a sermon.

Following that admission, Stroud was charged with "engaging in practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings." In December 2004, a trial court from her own Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference found Stroud guilty by a vote of 12-1 and then voted 7-6 to withdraw her credentials. Stroud then appealed to the Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals, which reversed the ruling in April. That decision was promptly appealed to the Judicial Council by the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference.

The committee on appeals referred to Judicial Council Decision 702 in its due process argument. The council later said that the use of that decision was wrong and that the appeals court "ignored a host of other decisions of the Judicial Council and actions of the General Conference." "In Decision 702, the clergyperson was accorded none of the fair and due process rights accorded to Rev. Stroud," the council said. Decision 702 said the General Conference or annual conferences must define "selfavowed practicing homosexual" for themselves, which led to the addition of a footnote to Paragraph 304.3 offering a definition for the phrase. As to due process, "The Judicial Council has painstakingly outlined the procedures which are to be applied at each stage of the proceedings to ensure that a clergyperson's fair and due process rights are protected while the disciplinary provisions enacted by the General Conference are given force and effect. These procedures have been meticulously followed in the proceedings involving Rev. Stroud."

In an Oct. 31 brief of partial concurrence and partial dissent, two council members - the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe and layperson Beth Capen - said they regretted the outcome and wrote that "the church continues to struggle with the issue of homosexuality. The church is clearly of many minds on this issue. People of deep faith and conscience continue to struggle and pray over these matters. While the Judicial Council must be faithful to its charge from the church, we are also sensitive to the hurt, pain and brokenness of the family of God."

Henry-Crowe and Capen suggested that the meaning and intent of Paragraph 33 of the church's Constitution - which gives the annual conference the right to vote on "all matters relating to the character of its clergy members, and on the ordination of clergy" - may need to be addressed by a future General Conference, and charged that prohibiting ordination because of one specific category amounts to discrimination.

"The prohibition was inserted into the section on qualifications for ordination (Par. 304). Must not all candidates and clergy be held to the same standards?" Henry-Crowe and Capen wrote. "It would seem that matters of character and qualification of all candidates and ministers must be the sole consideration."


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