News Analysis: Split decisions at the Judicial Council

The Judicial Council met recently to consider a long list of cases posed by various annual conferences. I have given a more complete description of the cases Good News was following HERE. The Council made two important decisions that went in favor of the traditionalist perspective and two with which we disagreed.

Questions of Law One-Fifth Requirement Unconstitutional

In a surprising, but welcome, development, the Judicial Council invalidated the one-fifth requirement for questions of law to be ruled on by bishops. This requirement was an issue in the case of a resolution passed by the New York Annual Conference and was also raised in the context of a question of law in the Southwest Texas Annual Conference. The Council ruled that the General Conference may not limit the authority of the Judicial Council and bishops to rule on questions of law. Such authority is found in the Constitution, and limiting it (by a one-fifth vote requirement) would require a Constitutional Amendment.

This ruling is important because it preserves access to the Judicial Council for all matters related to the Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council is the only check on the actions of annual conferences that violate the procedures prescribed by the Discipline. Questions of law are an important part of the accountability process in our church. They will continue to be available to all persons, not just those who can garner a one-fifth vote by the annual conference.

Western Jurisdiction

As expected, the resolution passed by the Western Jurisdiction in 2012 designating an “appropriate penalty” for bishops found guilty of ordaining or appointing a self-avowed practicing homosexual was ruled null and void by the Judicial Council. The resolution was similar to one passed by the Northern Illinois Annual Conference in 2011 that was also nullified by an earlier Judicial Council decision. The Council ruled that the trial court must have full authority to determine a penalty for persons found guilty of violating the Discipline, subject only to the guidelines of the Discipline. Any outside suggestion for a penalty is “an intrusion upon the authority of the trial court” and “undermines the authority of the Discipline.”

New York

The resolution passed by the New York Annual Conference commended many people who crossed the line set by the Discipline against performing same-sex unions or weddings, including some who had been convicted under church law for doing so, as well as some who have promised to do so. The Judicial Council ruled that the resolution was valid because it aspired for change in the Discipline on this matter, but did not negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline. Under the Council’s reasoning, commending certain behavior is not the same as prescribing that behavior. The resolution does not specifically “prescribe that others should engage in those behaviors nor does it advise others to negate or ignore church law in the Discipline.” Therefore, the resolution is acceptable.

This decision is disappointing, in that it seems to ignore the precedent set in Decision 1115, which states that a resolution “which expresses support of conduct which is prohibited” in the Discipline is illegal. To commend something is surely to support it. The Council by this decision allows an annual conference to encourage behavior that is contrary to the Discipline, thereby potentially undermining the authority of the Discipline.

California-Pacific

Similarly, the resolution passed by the California-Pacific Annual Conference supported a previous resolution passed by the Western Jurisdiction that “commend[ed] … the challenge to operate as if the statement in Para. 161F [declaring the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching] does not exist.” The Judicial Council accepted this resolution as valid through a tortured process of reasoning, in which they attempted to rule on the resolution passed by California-Pacific without ruling on the previous resolution passed by the Western Jurisdiction, even though the Western Jurisdiction resolution made up the heart of the content of the California-Pacific resolution. Their ruling hinged on the fact that Para. 161F is part of the Social Principles, which is not church law.

Although in a previous decision (1220) the Council ruled that an annual conference may not renounce a statement in the Social Principles, the Council now rules that an annual conference may explicitly ignore a statement in the Social Principles. Another distinction without much difference.

Encouragingly, three members of the Council registered a written dissent, in which they find that “urging others to disobey and ignore ¶161F of the Social Principles is impermissible because the resolution doesn’t merely expresses disagreement with the current language of the Discipline and it doesn’t merely expresses aspirational hopes. The effect is to negate and ignore the church’s clearly stated position on issues of sexuality … as reflected in the Social Principles.” Unfortunately, the rest of the Council did not agree.

Southwest Texas

A question of law asked if a person could be removed from being a candidate for ordained ministry because of her self-avowal as a practicing homosexual, even though she was not interviewed by the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry prior to that removal. (She was interviewed by the District Committee on Ministry, which heard and received her self-avowal.) Bishop Dorff ruled that the question of law was hypothetical and not germane to the business of the annual conference. The Judicial Council disagreed and ordered Bishop Dorff to make a ruling within 60 days. This issue will come back to the Judicial Council for its Spring 2014 session.

North Carolina

A question of law asked whether a contribution by the North Carolina Annual Conference to the North Carolina Council of Churches (NCCC) was legal, since the NCCC was alleged to promote the acceptance of homosexuality, in violation of ¶613.19 of the Discipline. Bishop Ward ruled that an investigation and decision by the Conference Council of Ministries that “such support did not ‘promote the acceptance of homosexuality’ and was therefore not in violation of Paragraph 613.19 of the 2012 Book of Discipline” was sufficient to show that the contribution was legal. The Judicial Council agreed.

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