Church begins trial of lesbian minister

Methodist is charged after admitting openly to gay relationship

March 18, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BOTHELL, Wash. - The Rev. Karen Dammann, a United Methodist minister, went on trial in a church here yesterday for admitting openly that she is in a lesbian relationship.

The judge is a retired bishop, the jurors 13 of her fellow ministers. She is charged with violating church law by living in a homosexual relationship, which United Methodist Church law says is "incompatible with Christian teachings."

But this is a church at war with itself, enforcing a law that many of its clergy and members here say they find immoral and un-Christian. In fact, Dammann's defense will use Scripture and the church's own Book of Discipline to argue that her prosecution is at odds with Christian teaching.

When a grim Dammann arrived at the church yesterday with her partner and their young son at her side, she was hugged by supportive clergy, praised by the bishop who had pressed the charges against her and hailed as a hero by dozens of hymn-singing protesters who made a show of blocking the door of the church to prevent the trial from going forward.

Thirty-three protesters were politely arrested and put on a bus while two men shouted that homosexuality is a sin that God will punish.

"She is a respected member of our conference and has done good ministry, and so this is a painful experience for all of us, including me," said Bishop Elias Galvan, who is in charge of the Pacific Northwest region here and brought the initial charges against Dammann, for which he portrayed himself as a regretful participant. "My role as bishop is to make sure that the Book of Discipline, the church law, is applied."

Just as the battle over gay marriage in the civilian world has moved to the courts, so, too, has the Methodist church resorted to ecclesiastical trials to enforce church law and to discipline those clergy who are performing same-sex unions.

The trial poses a dilemma for the Methodist church in the Pacific Northwest, which has a more liberal stance on homosexuality than many other regions of the church. Two times in the last four years, clergy panels here decided to dismiss the charges against Dammann. This trial is going ahead only on the insistence of the church's Judicial Council, the equivalent of its Supreme Court.

The 13 jurors were chosen in a closed session yesterday. Nine votes are needed to convict. If she is found guilty, the same jury will decide the penalty. It could be as lenient as putting a disciplinary letter in her personnel file, or as severe as ordering that she be defrocked or even excommunicated.

The United Methodist Church - the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, with about 8.3 million members - has remained so torn over homosexuality that it has argued over its stance at every quadrennial meeting for the past 32 years.

Methodist church rules forbid "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from serving as ministers, a position that will likely be debated again when church members gather for their quadrennial convention in Pittsburgh in April.

"A strong majority of members of the denomination would say that Karen Dammann has a right to her point of view, but if she can't with integrity uphold the church's teaching, then she should step aside," said Mark Tooley, director of the United Methodist project at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative group that monitors mainline Protestant denominations in the United States.

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