Lesbian pastor says trial could be turning point
March 19 2004 12:00 AM ET
The Reverend Karen Dammann, being tried by her church for being a lesbian, said Thursday that her case could be a turning point for the United Methodist Church. As she entered Bothell United Methodist Church in Bothell, Wash., for the start of the second day of her trial, Dammann said she felt no animosity toward her church or her jury of fellow pastors. "I don't take it personally. It's the process winding its way to a conclusion," she said. Although that process has been exhausting, she said, she's glad the trial is finally under way. "I feel hopeful," Dammann said. "It's possible that this will be a prophetic moment for the church."
The first day of her trial, which is taking place in the Seattle suburb of Bothell, was marked by the arrests of dozens of her supporters who tried to block the proceedings. Dammann, 47, is charged with "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible to Christian teachings." Church law prohibits ordination of self-avowed, practicing "homosexuals," although the church's social principles support rights and liberties for lesbians and gays. Three years ago, when she held a church position in Seattle, Dammann disclosed that she was in a lesbian relationship. She is now on leave as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg, 95 miles east of Seattle. Last week she married her partner of nine years, Meredith Savage, in Portland, Ore., where officials began allowing gay marriages earlier this month. The couple have a 5-year-old son.
Dammann pleaded not guilty at the start of the trial before a jury of 13 pastors. One of the first witnesses on Wednesday was Mary Ann Tolbert, a professor of biblical studies at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., and executive director of its Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. Tolbert said the church is inconsistent in how it applies its Book of Discipline. At one time, for example, divorce was not allowed, but the church has since changed its stance, she said. "It seems to me that, with all due respect, you are acting as a hypocrite," she said. She reminded jurors that Jesus himself was killed because he disagreed with the religious norms of his time. "We have to be very careful, you have to be very careful, that you don't replicate the crucifixion of Jesus in what you do," she said.
In an opening statement, Dammann's church counsel, the Reverend Bob Ward, compared the struggle of gays and lesbians to the struggle that women and minorities have had in gaining equality. The difference, he said, is that "with gays and lesbians, they are encouraged to hide, as we have adopted a policy of 'don't ask, don't tell."' He said gays and lesbians are relegated to a life of "hiding and lying." "Karen has chosen not to live the lie," Ward said.
But the Reverend James Finkbeiner, representing the church, called on the jury to find Dammann guilty of the charge of being a self-avowed, practicing homosexual. He told jurors that because Dammann disclosed her homosexuality to the bishop as well as to the entire church, that is all the proof they need to find her guilty. "Remember that this is a judicial process and not a legislative process," Finkbeiner said. "It is not the law of the church that is on trial here." Officials with the Nashville, Tenn.-affiliated United Methodist Church have said the trial is the first against a lesbian pastor in the denomination
since 1987, when the credentials of the Reverend Rose Mary Denman of New Hampshire were revoked. "Clearly the jury has to look at this prohibition and decide if it's consistent with the rest of our Methodist rules and with the Bible," Lindsay Thompson, Dammann's private lawyer, said earlier. "There are people who passionately believe both sides of that issue." Dammann has said she hopes her trial will help move society and the church toward greater acceptance of gay clergy. "We accept the gift of sexuality as God-given and holy," she said in defense papers released by Reconciling Ministries Network, a group favoring inclusion of gays and lesbians in the United Methodist Church.
Nine votes are needed for conviction, which would be followed by a decision by the same jury on a penalty that could include loss of ministry. If Dammann is acquitted, she would be considered in good standing and be available for new assignments. About 100 pro-Dammann demonstrators protested loudly but peaceably Wednesday morning outside Bothell United Methodist Church, and many tried to block church officials from entering the building. Police arrested 33 when they refused to move. The protesters came from as far away as Florida, Arizona, and Oklahoma and included members of Soulforce, an interfaith gay rights group. A handful of people protesting homosexuality also stood and held signs in the church driveway.
A former United Methodist minister from Omaha, Neb., who was defrocked in 1999 after a church trial for performing a same-sex union, was among Dammann's supporters. Jimmy Creech had been a senior pastor at an Omaha church at the time. Creech is now board chairman of Soulforce. Creech said Dammann is "on trial not because of what she has done but because of who she is."