Oklahoma United Methodism prevails in critical disaffiliation court case involving a Global Methodist Church lawyer.
Fighting Court Overreach
Readers of the blog remember a few months back when we detailed a court case related to disaffiliating churches and United Methodism. You can read the article here. The short version is that First UMC Oklahoma City felt the disaffiliation process was unfair to them, that the rules that 6,000 other churches followed didn’t apply to them, and so they sued to circumvent them, with the suit involving a lawyer in the breakaway Global Methodist Church.
While in most states, this type of court case wouldn’t get anywhere, it advanced to the Oklahoma Supreme Court after an Oklahoma district judge issued an error-ridden judgment – read it, it is bonkers!
Many, not just Methodists, watched this case because if the courts started becoming involved in church disputes, then people unhappy with their denominations didn’t have to follow the rules of their denomination; they could just sue to get their way out.
Since publication, another church also had a similar suit. Readers might recall the Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City (the childhood home church of this blogger) that held a failed disaffiliation vote in 2022. They came back with a similar suit to the above to circumvent the process, and the Supreme Court reviewed both arguments together in October 2023.
OK Supreme Court Decides
I’m happy to say that the Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed both their suits in time to keep both churches off the disaffiliation docket in Oklahoma United Methodism. The time is now run out, and these two churches will remain United Methodist, retaining a mission field in downtown Oklahoma City, and retaining one of the few mega-churches that kept a truly diverse congregation together to withstand disaffiliation forces and propaganda.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court opinions (First OKC here and Church of the Servant here) show that the lower court had interfered with the denominational processes, with their opinion hinging on Church Autonomy doctrine. From the First OKC decision on page 7 (with citations removed for clarity):
“Under the church autonomy doctrine, also known as the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, courts have no subject matter jurisdiction over matters of “theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government”….This affords churches the freedom to decide their own government, faith and doctrine. This is considerably broader than questions of who may preach, the content of sermons, or how services are conducted. Government action that interferes with this autonomy or risks judicial entanglement with a church’s conclusions regarding its own rules, customs, or laws is therefore prohibited by the First Amendment.”
“Church autonomy” is a weird word to United Methodist that are used to connectionalism. But what it means in this sense is that so long as churches are not violating civil and local laws, they are free to operate and structure themselves as they please. This is why, even though there are laws about equal opportunity and employment, Baptists and Catholics don’t have to ordain women, or the Global Methodist Church can expel queer clergy and laity from their ranks.
Interpreting church law is out of bounds for secular courts, and this case involved interpreting church law as to whether its processes were followed. Except in extreme cases, secular courts are unable to become involved in denominational matters because the laws themselves are outside of their jurisdiction. As it reads:
“Where ecclesiastical decisions are at issue, constitutional due process and ‘secular notions of fundamental fairness or impermissible objectives’ are irrelevant.” (Page 7)
“As the Book of Discipline is a governing church document, its interpretation is an ecclesiastical issue…the only way for the courts to decide that question is to interpret those internal church procedures. Under the church autonomy doctrine, courts cannot – and should not – do that…church autonomy is a bar to subject matter jurisdiction.” (Page 9)
For better or for worse, whether protecting churches from frivolous lawsuits or justifying their denial of fairness to women, church autonomy doctrine is a heavy one that the Global Methodist Church’s lawyer failed to circumvent.
Questions of Church Process integrity
Okay, so the civil court can’t review the process to see if there were violations. What recourse does a local church have then when fighting with the powers-that-be? As a United Methodist, I am concerned whether our own polity and laws were followed. The churches seeking to disaffiliate alleged that we had not upheld our own laws, therefore, they should get off scot-free. I reject that, but clearly, there should also be clarity as to whether our processes were followed, for the rest of our sakes.
The truth is that United Methodism has processes to decide whether our own rules were followed. We just saw an example of this with the trial of Bishop Minerva Carcaño, where our trial court process evaluated the charges against her and ruled in her favor. The Book of Discipline that guides our denomination gets longer every year because there are some administrative processes that need to be better defined. We have a method for almost anything Methodist!
So one of the failures of the churches seeking to leave United Methodism is that they sought to go around our own internal process rather than participating in it.
- If they thought that the bishop had done something wrong, a complaint could be launched with the college of bishops or can be sent to the jurisdiction Episcopal committee.
- If there’s a problem with a conference board, appeals can be made to the bishop, to other conference structures and leaders who are called to uphold those complaints with integrity.
- Finally, even being public about their complaints would have had them be judged in the public arena rather than in a failed strategy for suing their way out.
Rather than participate in our own processes, the disaffiliating churches sought to run out the clock and hoped that compressed timeline would force a unexamined secular court decision. They got that result for a minute, but it was taken away from them by the OK Supreme Court. What a blunder and waste of money!
Participating in United Methodist processes is the United Methodist way, even for those who don’t want to be United Methodist anymore. And even now those processes are running: we have our own internal review processes to see if they were upheld. I leave Oklahoma United Methodism and the South Central Jurisdiction to them and we’ll find out what we need to know moving forward.
A method for Methodists
Our Book of Discipline outlines processes the methods by which we make decisions and hold each other accountable as a church. That accountability is done by people following processes, not automatic decisions baked into our process. Wesleyan accountability is about people working face-to-face, rather than going overhead or going outside of the conference people and processes.
Over the decades, the people who have been charged with LGBTQ+ inclusive actions have had those charges evaluated by our processes. Sometimes the process results in a loss of ministerial status, sometimes there are just resolutions, sometimes there are acquittals. Though the process does tremendous harm, I admire my clergy colleagues who participate in them fully, and I’m thankful for friends who work with them through these legal concerns.
For better or worse, participation in our processes is the United Methodist way, and I’m thankful that this act of circumventing them by a Global Methodist Church lawyer failed spectacularly.
May we move on now that the forces seeking to nullify church law and the Method behind Methodism have been defeated. Now, we turn towards our mission of nurturing disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I hope you join in your local context.
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