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Judicial Council Reverses Lower Court, Rules Against Beth Stroud

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    Judicial Council Reverses Lower Court, Rules Against Beth Stroud Oct. 31, 2005 By Neill Caldwell* HOUSTON (UMNS) - The United Methodist Judicial Council has
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 31, 2005
      Judicial Council Reverses Lower Court, Rules Against Beth Stroud
      Oct. 31, 2005
      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 (see
      related story). 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 though we had a strong case.

      "I'll continue to work at the church as an associate lay pastor as I
      have been doing (since December). The silver lining out of all this is
      that by being out of the closet, my partner and I have started the
      process to become foster parents. We've filed the final papers. So if
      that works out, I will be taking some maternity leave. That's a joyful
      thing for us to look forward to."

      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 United Methodist Church is an inclusive church, one body in
      Christ," Symonette added. "Beth Stroud is called to ministry in that
      church by God."

      Stroud's other advocate, the Rev. Jim Hallam of Lima, Pa., lifted the
      thick United Methodist Book of Resolutions and said it "teaches us
      that racism, sexism, war … are 'incompatible with Christian
      teachings.' Why is homosexuality the only issue that is prohibitive?"

      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

      "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."

      Stroud's advocates noted that the denomination's Constitution says "no
      conference or other organizational unit of the church shall be
      structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the
      church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic
      condition." They argued that the word "status" in that section is

      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 of 13
      fellow clergy 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 "self-avowed 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

      "The prohibition was inserted into the section on qualifications for
      ordination (Paragraph 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."

      At the oral hearing, Richard Shoemaker and the Rev. Richard
      Heitzenrater also spoke for the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual
      Conference. Shoemaker noted during the hearing that Stroud's camp was
      "not happy with these most recent Judicial Council decisions," but he
      said: "If we cannot rely on these decisions, we're up a creek without
      a paddle. It's chaos."

      Of the court's nine members, the Rev. Paul Shamwange Kyungu of the
      Democratic Republic of Congo was absent from the deliberations.

      *Caldwell is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in
      High Point, NC.

      News media contact: Linda Green or Tim Tanton, (615) 742-5470 or
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