Judicial Council

Decision Number 1379

SUBJECT TO FINAL EDITING


April 25, 2019


IN RE: Petition for Declaratory Decision from the Council of Bishops regarding the constitutionality, meaning, application, and effect of Petition 90066 as amended.

Digest


Paragraph 41 of the Constitution governs the narrowly defined circumstance of a local church transferring from one annual conference to another but does not apply to a local church seeking to exit The United Methodist Church. Under ¶ 33 of the Constitution, the annual conference as the basic body in the Church has the reserved right to make final decisions regarding the disaffiliation of local churches within its boundaries.

Any legislation of the General Conference permitting the "gracious exit" of a local church must require at a minimum that (1) the disaffiliation resolution be approved by a two-thirds majority of the professing members of the local church present and voting at the church conference, (2) the terms and conditions, including effective date, of the agreement between the annual conference and the exiting local church be established by the conference board of trustees in accordance with applicable church law and civil laws, and (3) the disaffiliation agreement be ratified by a simple majority of the members of the annual conference present and voting.

When taken together with the consent of the annual conference pursuant to ¶ 2529.1(b)(3), Petition 90066 as amended meets all three requirements and is constitutional and provides a means for the disaffiliation of a local church.

Our ruling with respect to the disaffiliation of a local church in JCD 1377 is modified.

Statement of Facts


Acting as Legislative Committee, on February 25, 2019, the delegates to the 2019 Special General Conference amended and reported out Petition 90066, also known as the Taylor Disaffiliation Plan.[1] Subsequently, the committee passed a motion requesting the Judicial Council to determine the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan [hereinafter TP], including Petitions 90066 and 90059 (Boyette Disaffiliation Plan).[2] The following day, we rendered a declaratory decision, ruling both disaffiliation plans to be in violation of ¶¶ 33 and 41, therefore, unconstitutional. JCD 1377 at 3-4.

On February 26, during plenary session, the Minority Report on Disaffiliation was substituted for the majority report by a vote of 402 to 400.[3] In adopting the minority report, the General Conference enacted a new ¶ 2553, which reads:

¶ 2553. Disaffiliation of a Local Church Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality—

1. Basis-- Because of the current deep conflict within The United Methodist Church around issues of human sexuality, a local church shall have a limited right, under the provisions of this paragraph, to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference, or the actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues which follow.

2. Time Limits--The choice by a local church to disaffiliate with The United Methodist Church under this paragraph shall be made in sufficient time for the process for exiting the denomination to be complete prior to December 31, 2023. The provisions of ¶ 2553 expire on December 31, 2023 and shall not be used after that date.

3. Decision Making Process--The church conference shall be conducted in accordance with ¶ 248 and shall be held within one hundred twenty (120) days after the district superintendent calls for the church conference. In addition to the provisions of ¶ 246.8, special attention shall be made to give broad notice to the full professing membership of the local church regarding the time and place of a church conference called for this purpose and to use all means necessary, including electronic communication where possible, to communicate. The decision to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church must be approved by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.

4. Process Following Decision to Disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church--If the church conference votes to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church, the terms and conditions for that disaffiliation shall be established by the board of trustees of the applicable annual conference, with the advice of the cabinet, the annual conference treasurer, the annual conference benefits officer, the director of connectional ministries, and the annual conference chancellor. The terms and conditions, including the effective date of disaffiliation, shall be memorialized in a binding Disaffiliation Agreement between the annual conference and the trustees of the local church, acting on behalf of the members. That agreement must be consistent with the following provisions:

a) Standard Terms of the Disaffiliation Agreement. The General Council on Finance and Administration shall develop a standard form for Disaffiliation Agreements under this paragraph to protect The United Methodist Church as set forth in ¶ 807.9. The agreement shall include a recognition of the validity and applicability of ¶ 2501, notwithstanding the release of property therefrom. Annual conferences may develop additional standard terms that are not inconsistent with the standard form of this paragraph.

b) Apportionments. The local church shall pay any unpaid apportionments for the 12 months prior to disaffiliation, as well as an additional 12 months of apportionments.

c) Property. A disaffiliating local church shall have the right to retain its real and personal, tangible and intangible property. All transfers of property shall be made prior to disaffiliation. All costs for transfer of title or other legal work shall be borne by the disaffiliating local church.

d) Pension Liabilities. The local church shall contribute withdrawal liability in an amount equal to its pro rata share of any aggregate unfunded pension obligations to the annual conference. The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits shall determine the aggregate funding obligations of the annual conference using market factors similar to a commercial annuity provider, from which the annual conference will determine the local church's share.

e) Other Liabilities. The local church shall satisfy all other debts, loans, and liabilities, or assign and transfer them to its new entity, prior to disaffiliation.

f) Payment Terms. Payment shall occur prior to the effective date of departure.

g) Disaffiliating Churches Continuing as Plan Sponsors of the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits Plans. The United Methodist Church believes that a local church disaffiliating under ¶ 2553 shall continue to share common religious bonds and convictions with The United Methodist Church based on shared Wesleyan theology and tradition and Methodist roots, unless the local church expressly resolves to the contrary. As such, a local church disaffiliating under ¶ 2553 shall continue to be eligible to sponsor voluntary employee benefit plans through the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits under ¶ 1504.2, subject to the applicable terms and conditions of the plans.

h) Once the disaffiliating local church has reimbursed the applicable annual conference for all funds due under the agreement, and provided that there are no other outstanding liabilities or claims against The United Methodist Church as a result of the disaffiliation, in consideration of the provisions of this paragraph, the applicable annual conference shall release any claims that it may have under ¶ 2501 and other paragraphs of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church commonly referred to as the trust clause, or under the agreement.

On March 6, 2019, the Council of Bishops [hereinafter Petitioner] filed a request for declaratory decision as to the constitutionality, meaning, application, and effect of Petition 90066 as amended.

Petitioner and Beth Ann Cook filed briefs as interested parties. In addition, Lonnie Brooks, Warren Light, John Lomperis, and Thomas Starnes wrote separate briefs as amici curiae.

 

[1] See Daily Christian Advocate [hereinafter DCA], Vol. 2, No. 5 (February 26, 2019), pp. 440-445. Petition 90066 as originally submitted is printed in the Daily Christian Advocate, Vol. 1 [hereinafter ADCA], pp. 205-206.

[2] See DCA, Vol. 2, No. 5 (February 27, 2019), p. 467. The motion passed 437 to 371. The maker of the motion mistakenly invoked ¶ 2610 as the basis for the request. See id. at 464. That paragraph applies to acts of the General Conference, not a legislative committee. At the time the motion was made, the delegates acted as a legislative committee. The correct provision would have been ¶ 2609.4, which mandates that the "Judicial Council shall hear and determine the legality of any action taken by any body created or authorized by the General Conference…upon appeal by one-third of the members thereof…" Addressing the question whether a legislative committee was authorized to request a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council, the legislative chair cited JCD 1318 and 887 and answered it in the affirmative. See id. at 447. In JCD 1318, the Judicial Council accepted jurisdiction under ¶ 2609.4 for a request from the Judicial Administration Legislative Committee. In JCD 887, the Council did likewise but without citing the authority for jurisdiction.

[3] See DCA, Vol. 2, No. 5 (February 27, 2019), p. 521. Listed as Calendar Item 19, the minority report reads (in relevant part):

Minority Report

Adopt Petition #90066 (ADCA, p. 205) with the following changes:
1. Delete what is printed as section 2553.3 in its entirety
2. In the section listed as section 2553.5, first sentence, replace "the resident bishop"
with "the board of trustees"
3. Delete the first sentence section 2553.5g
4. Change the final sentence section 2553.5g, by replacing it with the following:
"Payment shall occur prior to the effective date of departure."
5. Delete the entirety of what is printed as sub-section 2553.5c, and re-number the rest accordingly.

DCA, Vol. 2, No. 2 (February 24, 2019), p. 386 (with editorial changes as noted in DCA, Vol. 2, No. 5 [February 27, 2019], p. 516). See also 2019 General Conference Legislation Tracking posted online at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/2019-general-conference-legislation-tracking.

Jurisdiction


The Judicial Council has jurisdiction pursuant to ¶¶ 2609.1 and 2610.1 of The Book of Discipline 2016 [hereinafter The Discipline]. The Petitioner has standing to request a declaratory decision pursuant to ¶¶ 2609.1 and 2610.2(b) of The Discipline.

Decision


Paragraph 41 of the Constitution governs the narrowly defined circumstance of a local church transferring from one annual conference to another but does not apply to a local church seeking to exit The United Methodist Church. Under ¶ 33 of the Constitution, the annual conference as the basic body in the Church has the reserved right to make final decisions regarding the disaffiliation of local churches within its boundaries.

Any legislation of the General Conference permitting the "gracious exit" of a local church must require at a minimum that (1) the disaffiliation resolution be approved by a two-thirds majority of the professing members of the local church present and voting at the church conference, (2) the terms and conditions, including effective date, of the agreement between the annual conference and the exiting local church be established by the conference board of trustees in accordance with applicable church law and civil laws, and (3) the disaffiliation agreement be ratified by a simple majority of the members of the annual conference present and voting.

When taken together with the consent of the annual conference pursuant to ¶ 2529.1(b)(3), Petition 90066 as amended meets all three requirements and is constitutional and provides a means for the disaffiliation of a local church.

Our ruling with respect to the disaffiliation of a local church in JCD 1377 is modified.

April 25, 2019