Decision Number 301


November 08, 1968

Petitions from the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference and the Florida Annual Conference for Declaratory Decision as to the Constitutionality, Meaning, Application and Effect of the Statement Endorsed by the 1968 General Conference, entitled "The Rule of Law and the Right of Dissent."


The Judicial Council is without jurisdiction to grant a declaratory decision on the petitions of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference and the Florida Annual Conference concerning the constitutionality, meaning, application and effect of the statement endorsed by the General Conference, entitled "The Rule of Law and the Right of Dissent," because the statement does not affect either conference or the work therein in a direct and tangible manner within the meaning of Paragraph 1715 of the 1968 Discipline.

Statement of Facts

This proceeding arises on the petitions of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference and the Florida Annual Conference (formerly Florida Annual Conference of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the former The Methodist Church) for a declaratory decision as to the constitutionality, meaning, application and effect of the action of the 1968 General Conference in approving a statement entitled "The Rule of Law and the Right of Dissent," with particular reference to the paragraphs addressed to the right of non-violent civil disobedience. The text of the statement in its entirety is appended hereto.

The petitions are addressed specifically to the third of four affirmations set forth in the statement. It is said to be unconstitutional because at variance with Article XXIII of the Articles of Religion, which reads as follows:
"The President, the Congress, the general assemblies, the governors, and the councils of state as the delegates of the people, are the rulers of the United States of America, according to the division of power made to them by the Constitution of the United States and by the constitutions of their respective states. And the said states are a sovereign and independent nation, and ought not to be subject to any foreign jurisdiction."

It is said also to conflict with the explanation of Article XXIII adopted legislatively by the General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church in 1820 and re-adopted with the Articles of Religion of The United Methodist Church, presumably as a legislative addendum to or interpretation of Article XXIII. It reads as follows:
"It is the duty of all Christians, and especially of all Christian ministers, to observe and obey the laws and commands of the governing or supreme authority of the country of which they are citizens or subjects or in which they reside, and to use all laudable means to encourage and enjoin obedience to the powers that be." (Par. 93)

The statement of the General Conference is defended as consistent with Article XVI of the Confession of Faith, which reads as follows:
"We believe civil government derives its just powers from the sovereign God. As Christians we recognize the governments under whose protection we reside and believe such governments should be based on, and be responsible for, the recognition of human rights under God. We believe war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ. We believe it is the duty of Christian citizens to give moral strength and purpose to their respective governments through sober, righteous and godly living."


The right of a Jurisdictional Conference or an Annual Conference to obtain a declaratory decision as to the constitutionality, meaning, application or effect of an act of the General Conference is limited to situations where the act under scrutiny relates to or affects such Annual Conference or Jurisdiction or "the work therein." (Par. 1715, 1968 Discipline)

We are told that the statement of the General Conference insofar as it related to civil disobedience is widely unpopular in the petitioning conferences and that this affects the work of the conferences. But certainly legal rights cannot come into being simply because of protest. The work of a conference must be affected in some direct and tangible manner before such a conference can seek judicial review of the status and meaning of a General Conference act.

If the statement were a mandate to church members to indulge in nonviolent civil disobedience, as some assert, it would clearly affect the work of the conferences. But it is not a mandate; it is not even a legislative act. It is simply a statement of conviction. The General Conference statement neither directs nor counsels a disrespect for law. Its primary emphasis is upon the value and necessity of a society rooted in law and of a citizenry who respect law. This has been and remains the time-honored position of The United Methodist Church and the churches which preceded it. (See the General Conference statement interpretive of Article XXIII of the Articles of Religion and Article XVI of the Confession of Faith, both heretofore quoted.) The challenged statement only recognizes a right of non-violent civil disobedience "in extreme cases," carefully defined and limited in the statement. It is neither accurate nor persuasive to lift the challenged portion out of the context of the complete statement and treat it as a general endorsement of non-violent civil disobedience. Correctly understood, the position on civil disobedience endorsed by a majority of the General Conference does not direct or counsel the members of any Annual or Jurisdictional Conference to indulge in civil disobedience. A Methodist Conference is under no mandate to defend a member who indulges in civil disobedience. The General Conference has clearly stated that such a member must be prepared to accept the penalties imposed for his disobedience. So understood, it cannot be said to affect the work of any conference, a prerequisite to jurisdiction to seek a judicial review. Since the work of the petitioning conferences is unaffected in any direct or tangible manner by the action of the General Conference, we are without jurisdiction to entertain petitions from either of them.

Jurisdiction is denied.

Dissenting Opinion


"The increasing stresses in our society, growing out of strong differences over the war in Vietnam and the perpetuation of racial discrimination at home, make it essential that we understand the nature and implications of: dissent, civil disobedience, obedience to the law and seeking within the law redress for wrongs.

"As Christians we seek God's will for our lives. We realize that in times of conflict we are called upon to 'obey God rather than man' and hence may find ourselves at odds with temporal authority. At the same time we are constrained to act in humility and in the spirit of reconciliation. In this spirit, we state the following affirmations:
"One, We affirm the value and necessity of a society rooted in law and of a citizenry who respect law. No society can long continue without justice and order, and these cannot exist unless the members of a society adhere to the rule of law. Where particular provisions of law are unwise or unjust, the citizen must seek correction through the law's provisions for change i.e., in the court or the legislature or to reconstitute law-making bodies through the democratic process.

"A rule of law is dependent upon the respect and support of the citizenry as well as on its obedience. Therefore, the provisions and processes of the law must merit respect and support. They must be constantly tended and improved by the hands of those sensitive to injustice. Laws must be drafted, interpreted and administered in terms of man's highest moral insights. This is the way to that rule of law which will afford society the justice and order it requires.

"Nevertheless, in our day as in other times, there are persons who under conscience cannot obey a given law or who have found that their attempts to change a law or to secure redress for grievances have fallen on deaf ears or have been rejected. We understand how, in such circumstances, they must 'obey God rather than man.'

"Two, We then affirm the right of dissent as an essential ingredient of any democratic society. The right of everyone to dissent is in jeopardy when the right of anyone is denied.

"In a time of intense controversy and conflict, we call attention to the American heritage which has provided for the right of dissent. As a nation whose very historic and cherished freedoms were forged by dissent, we believe that in our time the interests of our common life may, in certain specific instances, be served best by those who dissent from the policies and actions of our government. We believe that the sincere and patriotic citizen has a duty to dissent from and work for the correction of the policies and actions of his government when be believes them to be immoral and unjust. At the same time, we urge that all expressions of dissent be responsible and within a basic commitment to non-violent means.

"Three, We affirm the right of non-violent civil disobedience in extreme cases as a viable option in a democracy and as a sometime requirement for Christians who are to have no other God than the God of Jesus Christ. By civil disobedience we mean the deliberate and non-violent disobeying of a law believed to be unjust or unconstitutional, and the willingness to accept penalties for that violation.

"Where a civil disobedient has a fundamental respect for legal institutions of society and is prepared to accept penalties for disobedience, there is little threat to the basic concept of the rule of law.

"We believe that such disobedience under conscientious control does not justify, nor would it encourage, widespread casual and indiscriminate violation of law. Some may misinterpret the civil disobedient motivation and action, and respond accordingly; but this is one of the risks that must be taken in a society that gives some autonomy to an informed and sensitive conscience. We believe that not only the individual who protests, but freedom of religion and the best interests of the society itself, will be served by this freedom for conscientious action.

"Four, We affirm the right of clergymen and others to counsel persons on problems of conscience. Furthermore, we call upon pastors and qualified lay members of The United Methodist Church, whatever their own stand on war may be, to equip themselves with appropriate information in order that they may counsel more wisely. We urge them to provide information, resources and support leaving the decision in the hands of the one who must face the risks." (1968 Resolutions , pp. 41-43)

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