United Methodists entering the final week of their national meeting have turned to the church's highest court for help enforcing a ban on the ordination of gays.
Responding to a question from delegates, the Judicial Council released a ruling Saturday that church law clearly declares gay sex "incompatible with Christian teaching." The court said in its 6-3 decision that violations could lead to removal from church office.
In light of that ruling, delegates directed the court to review the case of the Reverend Karen Dammann, a lesbian who was acquitted of violating church law by a jury in Bothell, Wash. Dammann had admitted she was in a relationship with a woman, and the March 20 verdict outraged conservatives. The court will release its decision on Dammann before the General Conference ends Friday. The gathering, which reconvenes Monday after a one-day break, is held every four years to set church policy and for decades has seen many contentious debates regarding gay clergy.
No one expects the 8.3 million-member denomination to break apart over the issue. Delegates have consistently voted by large margins to reject proposals more accepting of openly gay clergy. That trend is likely to continue among this year's nearly 1,000 delegates. Still, conservatives say Methodists who disagree with church law have been ignoring it, and they have proposed giving the Judicial Council more power to intervene. If no action is taken, they warn, individual Methodists might leave their congregations or withhold donations in protest.