The United Methodist Church's highest court ruled Tuesday that ministers who conduct same-sex unions violate the denomination's law and can be tried in its courts.
The ruling, by the church's Judicial Council, declared that a sentence added to the Methodists' rule book two years ago that barred ministers from conducting gay unions was not advisory but binding on clerics.Methodist ministers convicted of disobeying church law can face penalties as severe as suspension from office and expulsion from the denomination.
The council's decision is the second in a week in which a major religious body has dealt a blow to wider acceptance of homosexuals in church circles. Last Wednesday the world's Anglican bishops, meeting in Canterbury, England, passed a resolution declaring homosexual activity "incompatible with Scripture" and advising Anglicanism's 37 church provinces, which include the Episcopal Church in the United States, against ordaining homosexuals as priests.
The United Methodist Church, with 8.5 million members, is second in size only to the Southern Baptist Convention among America's Protestant denominations. Last week the nine judges of its Judicial Council - five lay people and four ministers - met in Dallas and heard arguments arising from the trial last March of the Rev. Jimmy Creech. Creech was narrowly acquitted by a church jury in Nebraska of charges that he had violated the denomination's rule book, the Book of Discipline, in performing a ceremony of union for two women in his Omaha congregation.
The verdict touched off an uproar among conservatives and led several of the church's regional jurisdictions to ask the Judicial Council for a ruling.
Creech's defense had rested on the argument that a sentence inserted in the rule book in 1996 by the denomination's General Conference, its top legislative body, was only advisory. As evidence, he noted that the sentence had been added not to the part of the book that deals with the church's structure and specific regulations but instead to the social principles section, a collection of the church's reflections on social issues.
The sentence says, "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
In its ruling Tuesday, the Judicial Council said the sentence "has the effect of church law, notwithstanding its placement."