Judicial Council Reverses Lower Court, Rules Against Beth Stroud
- 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