MILWAUKEE (AP) — A Methodist pastor was suspended Thursday for 20 days for officiating at a lesbian wedding, a modest victory for traditionalists in a growing rift over the role of gay and lesbian partnerships in the church.
The Rev. Amy DeLong of Osceola never denied marrying the couple, an act that prompted a church trial this week in Kaukauna. A jury of clergy convicted her Wednesday by a 13-0 vote.
That same jury could have chosen to defrock DeLong, but limited the penalty to suspension. It also demanded, however, that DeLong draft and present a document outlining issues that harm the United Methodist Church's clergy covenant, and said if she does not she will be suspended for a year, according to the Rev. Scott Carlson, a DeLong supporter who was in the courtroom for the final phase.
DeLong and the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, the Greenville pastor who represented the church against her, did not immediately respond to telephone messages.
The case has been watched closely by Methodists around the nation.
Methodist pastors in areas including Illinois, Minnesota, New York and New England have begun defying the ban on marrying gay couples, saying it violates the church's teaching of inclusion.
Church officials counter that the prohibition is consistent with Christian teaching, and that God's love doesn't necessarily equate to acceptance of all behaviors.
DeLong, 44, had faced two charges: marrying a same-sex couple and being a "self-avowed practicing homosexual."
The second charge, on which she was acquitted 12-1, refers to a Methodist term allowing gays to serve as clergy as long as they remain celibate. The not guilty verdict appeared to be based on the fact that DeLong declined to answer in court about whether her relationship involved sexual contact.
Her suspension contrasts with some previous decisions. In 2005, a minister from Germantown, Pa., was defrocked for being in a lesbian partnership. A senior pastor in Omaha, Neb., was defrocked in 1999 for performing a same-sex union.
Delong's trial arose at the same time that a body of Methodist pastors is growing more vocal about overturning the church rule prohibiting clergy from marrying same-sex couples or conducting blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions.
Their calls have increased the pressure for the church to join other mainline Protestant denominations that have become more accepting of openly gay leaders.
But those pastors represent a small proportion of the church's clergy, and the chances that the ban would be reversed are questionable.
Rule changes must be approved by delegates at the church's worldwide General Conference, held every four years. Because a growing number of delegates come from Africa and other theologically conservative regions, voting patterns reflect strong resistance to change.
An advocacy group for conservative Protestants said DeLong's outcome means the ban won't end anytime soon. Mark Tooley, president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy, said the fact that DeLong was convicted in a fairly liberal region suggests that delegates to the 2012 conference in Tampa, Fla., won't be looking to reverse the rule.
"The church's liberal faction likely does not face a very bright future," he said.
The Rev. Richard Harding doesn't see it that way. The 86-year-old retired pastor in Massachusetts has been defying the same-sex-wedding ban for more than 10 years without drawing any complaints. He said the ban only drives away talented clergy along with younger members who think the policy is out of touch.
DeLong never denied marrying the lesbian couple. While she avoided discussing her own lesbian relationship in local church settings, she said her efforts to live halfway in the closet and halfway out took such a toll that she finally decided to break her silence.
"I would be lying if I said this process hasn't been difficult, but I also feel called to break the silence and tell my own truth regardless of the consequences," she said a few days before the trial began. "When I entered (the ministry) I did not suspend my conscience. It's incumbent on me not to perpetuate its unjust laws."
United Methodist Church: http://www.umc.org
Amy DeLong trial news: http://loveontrial.org
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.
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