United Methodist News Service published an article April 19 titled “Exiting Florida churches’ lawsuit dismissed” and an earlier article April 3 titled “187 churches sue North Georgia Conference.” Both report state judicial rulings on lawsuits brought by UM churches disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church. The churches are attempting to leave with their properties without following due process established by the denomination’s General Conference.
The lawsuits were filed against annual conferences in Florida, North Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and other states. While some cases are ongoing, so far, judges have ruled against plaintiffs and in favor of conferences. They reaffirm the separation of church and state in U.S. law—also known as the “establishment clause”—and “the Constitutional principle that secular courts do not have a role in settling matters of church doctrine,” according to the Florida Conference.
Since the 18th century, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have maintained in governing documents a trust clause, which states that all church property is held in trust for the entire denomination. John Wesley, the Methodist movement’s founder, instituted the practice of requiring deeds to include this trust clause.
However, the 2019 special General Conference offered a limited release from the trust clause for U.S. congregations wanting to retain their properties when disaffiliating for reasons of conscience regarding the actions or inactions of The United Methodist Church around human sexuality. That temporary release requires that they meet certain conditions.
Those requirements include at least a two-thirds vote for disaffiliation by the congregation and majority approval by its annual conference. The church law, Paragraph 2553 in the denomination’s Book of Discipline, is set to expire at the end of 2023.
“We are grateful that the courts now in several states have honored the polity and Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church for those who have brought lawsuits against annual conferences,” said EPA&GNJ Bishop John Schol. “We grieve when faithful United Methodists want to leave and even sue the church. These are our friends, colleagues and people we have served side by side with. The leadership of EPA&GNJ are committed to working with all United Methodists, as together we recruit and develop transformational leaders to make disciples of Jesus Christ and grow vital mission congregations for the transformation of the world.”