Methodist conference upholds 3 disputed stands against same-sex behavior

CLEVELAND - Rejecting pleas from demonstrators, United Methodist Church leaders reaffirmed their opposition Thursday to same-sex behavior, ordination for active homosexuals and blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.

The decisions are binding for the next four years for a denomination with 8.4 million U.S. members and 1.2 million overseas, raising the prospect of continuing disputes - and church trials for dissenting clergy.

During much of the tense, daylong debate, demonstrators stood in silent protest at the front of the hall. After the third decision they sang ''We Shall Overcome'' and refused to let the meeting proceed. Police arrested 27 protesters, including bishops from Chicago and Albany, N.Y.

It was the first such disruption of a major American church assembly over homosexuality, and activists said it would not be the last.

The demonstration came a day after 191 activists were arrested for blocking a driveway to the convention center where the Methodist meeting is being held.

Demonstrators who were taken into custody Thursday were charged with disruption of a lawful meeting, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.

''We believe this church has broken a covenant with us,'' said protester Randy Miller of San Francisco as he addressed the convention on behalf of the protesters.

By taking a stance against homosexuality, the church is rejecting people who have been Methodists all their lives, he said.

''We are not strangers to this church,'' he said.

Thursday's vote totals were 628-337 to maintain the stand that ''the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,'' 640-317 on ordinations and 646-294 to forbid same-sex ceremonies.

Of the three votes, the prohibition of same-sex ceremonies looms as the most troublesome. Hundreds of liberal Methodist clergy have pledged to disobey this church law. Three trials since 1998 for ministers who conducted same-sex rites have ended with mixed results.

''We cannot allow church trials to drive some members out of the denomination,'' said the Rev. Emery Percell of Rockford, Ill. ''I hesitate to think of the destruction and disruptions in this church if we go down the route of church trials.''

But the Rev. Robert Hayes, a district superintendent in Houston, appealed for a firm stand.

''Over the last few years our denomination has been rocked by those who would interpret existing language as vague and unenforceable. If we allow change at this point the church would have no leverage at all in such cases. This would destroy further the tapestry that holds our church together,'' Hayes said.

The reaffirmed policy says ''ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.''

A related ruling from the church's Judicial Council on Thursday said local Methodist units and individuals may not ''legally negate, ignore or violate'' sections of church law they disagree with.

The ruling rejected liberal-conscience claims, most notably from Bishop Melvin Talbert of Sacramento, Calif., who endorsed the February acquittal of 67 clergy who led a union ceremony for a lesbian couple despite the denominational ban. Talbert said local Methodists' ''commitments to inclusiveness and justice'' take precedence over national church law.

Conservatives have filed separate charges against Talbert over that statement.

The impact of the Judicial Council ruling is unclear, because Methodist rules still give the local units full control of clergy discipline. Conservatives are furious that clergy in California were able to break the same-sex ban with impunity.


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