A Soulforce Viewpoint on the Karen Dammann Trial
- Monday, March 15, 2004
A Soulforce Viewpoint on the Karen Dammann Trial
by Steven E. Webster, Co-chair, the United Methodist Team of Soulforce
We, of Soulforce, acknowledge that there are those who advocate
a "jury nullification strategy" in the Karen Dammann Trial and who
object to Soulforce's plan to use civil disobedience to resist the
convening of this trial. Jury nullification (sometimes known as "jury
nullification of the law") occurs when a jury, believing a law to be
unjust, votes to acquit even though they know the law and the facts
indicate a defendant's guilt. In United Methodist (UM) circles an
informative paper has been published on the web (URL:
http://www.mfsacal-pac.net/Nullification.html ) describing the
significant history of jury nullification in the Anglo-American legal
tradition, including, for example, the courageous refusal of a 17th
century British jury to convict Quakers under laws restricting
In the case of Karen Dammann, proponents of the nullification
strategy hope that the jury (known as the "trial court") will vote to
acquit even though what the UM Judicial Council ("Supreme Court")
calls "the agreed facts" (in their decision no. 980) indicate she
is "guilty" of being "a self-avowed practicing homosexual." One
major hurdle the jury nullification strategy will need to
overcome is the trial court selection process. A trial pool of 35
ordained clergy has been nominated by the District Superintendents.
From this pool 13 members of the trial court must be selected. In
the selection process both the counsel for the Church
(the "prosecutor" in UM church trials) and the counsel for the
respondent (the "defender") have an unlimited number of "challenges
for cause." This allows the counsel for the Church to prevent any
member of the trial pool from being seated as a member of the trial
court unless he/she states a willingness to convict if the law and
the facts justify conviction. This seems to be exactly what the UM
Judicial Council had in mind when it wrote in decision 980 of the
Dammann case that "persons who state that they cannot in good
conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a trial
Although the process begins with a trial pool of 35, the Discipline
provides that additional persons may be nominated to the pool if the
initial pool is exhausted due to challenges (para 2709.3). In the
event that the number of clergy qualified to serve on the trial pool
in an Annual Conference is exhausted in this selection process, the
Discipline provides that qualified clergy from other Annual
Conferences can be nominated to the trial pool (para. 2713.3a).
Even if 13 jurors who are willing to convict cannot be found in the
Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, it is likely that they can be
found from other Annual Conferences.
We recognize that some fear that Soulforce's presence will alienate
jurors who might otherwise vote to nullify. We believe we have
designed our direct action in Bothell not to offend persons who would
be disposed to support Karen Dammann and lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender (LGBT) persons generally. We do not believe the failure
of the trial court to nullify church law in Karen Dammann's
case can be blamed on any action by Soulforce. We must face the
fact that the trial system in The United Methodist Church is designed
to "defrock" clergy who are proved by "clear and convincing evidence"
to be "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." If the trial system
operates as designed, that cannot be blamed on any Soulforce action.
If jury nullification does occur in Karen Dammann's case, advocates
of the nullification strategy believe it will lead to
a "constitutional crisis" that will result in progress for LGBT
United Methodists. It is correct that the U.M. Constitution grants
Annual Conferences the right to "vote on all matters relating to the
character and conference relations of its clergy members, and
the ordination of clergy and such other rights as have not been
delegated to the General Conference under the Constitution."
(Discipline, para. 31) However, General Conference has the
constitutional authority to set the clergy standards which must be
applied by the Annual Conferences and to establish the
denomination's judicial system and procedures which can "defrock"
clergy (Discipline, para. 15). Further, clergy members of the Annual
Conference have the responsibility to uphold the Discipline, even if
they disagree with some of its laws. General Conference and the
Judicial Council have the power to resolve any "constitutional
crisis" in this case by further tightening the rules.
One example of this occurred in the case of the "Sacramento 68."
Following the convictions in church trials of Revs. Jimmy Creech and
Greg Dell for blessing same-gender unions, sixty-eight clergy members
of the California-Nevada Annual Conference defied the same law and
blessed the union of two United Methodist women in 1999. Charges
were considered by that Conference's Committee on Investigation which
held an important and moving public hearing. The Committee on
Investigation refused to forward the charges to trial. In effect,
they nullified the unjust church law in this case even before it
could go to a Church trial court. This case provoked changes to the
Book of Discipline by the 2000 General Conference which revised the
1996 Discipline para. 2621.1J which became para. 2715.10 in the 2000
Discipline. When it appeared that a Committee on Investigation had
also nullified church law in Karen Dammann's case, the newly
revised para. 2715.10 allowed appeals to go all the way up to the
Judicial Council (the UM "Supreme Court") which ordered the Committee
on Investigation to send Karen's case to the trial now about to occur
in Bothell, Washington.
Despite the odds, it is not impossible that a jury might vote to
acquit Karen Dammann in this instance under current rules. However,
such an instance of "jury nullification" provides no legal precedent
that would prevent the trial of any other LGBT clergy person either
in the Pacific Northwest or anywhere else. No clergy person charged
in the future with being a "self-avowed practicing homosexual" could
be assured that a trial court will nullify in their case. In fact,
it is likely that rules and procedures may be tightened to make such
nullification an even more remote possibility.
While Karen may not be tried again for the current charge (because
the rules do not allow "double jeopardy"), she is not immune if it
is alleged that she has committed the same offense a second time.
For example, if Karen should tell a future bishop that she is a self-
avowed practicing homosexual, that Bishop may also be obligated to
bring new charges. As long as the law continues on the books, and as
long as Karen continues to be a "self-avowed practicing homosexual"
she is vulnerable to new charges.
Remember, Rev. Jimmy Creech was acquitted in his first trial.
Between his first trial and second trial the Judicial Council
tightened the rules by declaring one of our Social Principles to be,
in fact, a church law. Jimmy could not be re-tried for the blessing
for which he was originally charged (that would have violated
the "double jeopardy" principle). But when Jimmy blessed a second
same-gender couple, he faced a second trial and was convicted.
If jury nullification occurs in Karen's case, General Conference
would likely follow what has been a 30 year pattern of tightening the
rules to eliminate any possible "exceptions" to their abiding
intention to prevent any "self-avowed practicing homosexual" from
serving in the ordained ministry. Therefore, any so-
called "constitutional crisis" is likely to be resolved by General
Conference and the Judicial Council by further fine tuning of the
system of LGBT exclusion.
While Soulforce continues to respect those who hold a different view,
we have come to the conclusion that the United Methodist system of
LGBT exclusion can no longer be "tinkered with" in the hopes that the
injustice it inflicts on all LGBT people can be ameliorated. Using
the methods of Gandhi and King we refuse to allow the wheels of this
system to turn without resistance. For us this means resisting the
Church's intention to convene a trial which is part of the machinery
of LGBT exclusion. For the same reason we will continue to resist
the operations of the machinery of the United Methodist General
Conference which drives the whole UM system of LGBT exclusion.