New York Times, 21 March 04
Methodist Pastor, a Lesbian, Is Cleared by a Church Jury
By MATTHEW PREUSCH and LAURIE GOODSTEIN
BOTHELL, Wash., March 20 -- A jury of 13 Methodist clergy members said Saturday that a fellow minister did not violate church law by being in a lesbian relationship, concluding a proceeding that put on trial the church's stance on homosexuality as much as it did the minister's relationship.
The ecclesiastical trial of the minister, the Rev. Karen T. Dammann, captivated United Methodist ministers and congregants around the country. The verdict comes about a month before the church opens its quadrennial convention in Pittsburgh, and is likely to serve as a rallying cry for both church conservatives and liberals already prepared for a clash over the church's stand on homosexuality.
The jury deliberated for more than 10 hours over two days in the Sunday school classroom of the Bothell United Methodist Church near Seattle. Eleven jurors voted to find Ms. Dammann not guilty. The other two were undecided.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Ms. Dammann, 47, said the verdict vindicated her painful emotional decision to come out as a lesbian but meant equally difficult times ahead for the church.
"For the church it means a beginning of another stage of struggles, and I'm mindful of that," she said. "This is going to be painful."
The prosecution had argued that the case for conviction was cut and dried, because since 1972, the law of the Methodist church, the Book of Discipline, has included a passage that says homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." The prosecution called only one witness.
But Ms. Dammann's defense team presented more than 20 witnesses, including several eminent Methodist legal scholars and experts in Scripture, who argued that the Book of Discipline and the Bible contain unclear and contradictory passages about homosexual relationships.
The Rev. Karla M. Fredericksen, speaking for her fellow jurors, said they were not convinced that the Book of Discipline barred homosexuals from serving as ministers.
"Although we, the trial court, found passages that contain the phrasing `incompatible with Christian teaching,' we did not find that any of them constitute a declaration," Ms. Fredericksen said.
When the verdict was read, there were muted cheers among the approximately 100 people gathered in the courtroom, the church's fellowship hall. When the judge dismissed the court, several stood and hugged their neighbors and many cried.
A guilty verdict, which would have required nine votes in favor, could have led to Ms. Dammann's removal from the ministry. The church cannot appeal the verdict.
Gay ministers are not uncommon in the Methodist Church, but Ms. Dammann was brought to trial because she disclosed her situation to her regional bishop, who consulted with his superiors and was instructed to press charges against her. The only previous trial of an openly gay Methodist minister, Rose Mary Denman, ended in 1987 with her being found guilty and defrocked.
With more than eight million members, Methodists are the country's third largest Christian denomination, behind Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists. Like other denominations and the country itself, the Methodist Church is struggling to reconcile traditionalists and an increasingly vocal and politically powerful alliance of gays and lesbians and their supporters.
The Episcopal Church U.S.A. last year approved the election of its first openly gay bishop, a move that provoked church traditionalists to form their own rival alliance.
The verdict in Ms. Dammann's case is likely to inflame Methodist conservatives who believe that she openly violated church rules and hoped that the jury would deliver a clear repudiation.
The Rev. Dr. Maxie D. Dunnam, president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., said: "How can there be a not guilty verdict when what she's done is public and she has confessed it? I'm very surprised and I'm very disappointed because it's another sign of really anarchy in the church."
Dr. Dunnam said the issue could create a schism in the church. "We can't continue to live with a whole segment of the church that is deliberately disobeying the church's law," he said.
The trial took place in one of the church's most liberal regions, the Pacific Northwest Conference. Two previous clergy panels there refused to order the trial. The event went forward on the insistence of the denomination's highest court, the Judicial Council.
At least two Methodist ministers have been tried in recent years for performing gay unions. One of them, Jimmy Creech, who was defrocked in 1999, attended the trial as a supporter of Ms. Dammann.
Ms. Dammann declared in 2001 in a letter to her bishop that she was "living in a partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship." She and her long-term partner, Meredith Savage, said in a news conference on Thursday that Ms. Dammann had decided to disclose her sexuality because hiding the relationship had become painful and untenable.
The two women said the turning point came the day Ms. Dammann insisted that Ms. Savage scrape a gay rights bumper sticker off her car to hide their orientation from a church supervisor about to visit their home. The couple are raising a 5-year-old boy who was born to Ms. Savage and said they wanted him to learn that lying is wrong.
The Rev. James C. Finkbeiner, who served as prosecutor, argued that Ms. Dammann's declared relationship was on its face a violation of church law.
The presiding judge, Bishop William Boyd Grove, gave witnesses and lawyers wide leeway to expound on the difficult moral and legal questions posed by the case.
All the witnesses spoke for the defense except for one, Bishop Elias Galvan, who as leader of the church's Pacific Northwest region supervised Ms. Dammann, a minister at the Ellensburg United Methodist Church in central Washington. She is on family leave.
At times, Bishop Galvan appeared sympathetic to Ms. Dammann, repeatedly saying that she had "done good work" as a minister. But he also testified that Ms. Dammann, in wording her letter the way she did, appeared to be intentionally "trying to test" church law.
Lawyers for Ms. Dammann sought to portray the church's prohibition of homosexuality in the clergy as vague or even nonexistent.
Retired Bishop Jack Tuell of Des Moines, Wash., an expert on church law and a witness for the defense, sought to dismantle the passage in the Book of Discipline, arguing that theologically, rhetorically and morally it failed to serve as a clear prohibition on homosexuality. Jurors listened closely to his testimony and took copious notes.
Bishop Tuell said, "It is my opinion, after studying all of this, that the United Methodist Church has never declared the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching."
Ms. Dammann did not testify. But at the news conference on Thursday, she said, "God called me into ordained ministry and I just can't believe that God would make a mistake."
Matthew Preusch reported from Bothell, Wash., for this article and Laurie Goodstein from New York.