Methodists march to support gay and lesbian members

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May 04 2004 11:00 PM ET

Methodists who seek broader acceptance of gays marched together to the church's national meeting Tuesday, then dropped to their knees in prayer as delegates arrived for a day of voting. The nearly 200 congregants and clergy, wearing the colorful stoles that are a symbol of their movement, lined up along the entrance to the building where the United Methodist General Conference is being held.

They had little expectation that they could ease their denomination's prohibitions on gay sex. Delegates have voted consistently over the years that the Bible condemns homosexuality. But the protesters said they wanted to remind delegates of the many gays who belong to their 8.3 million-member church. "I think it's important to keep fighting," said Val Zellmer of Wisconsin as she walked toward the convention center. "I think Jesus said that God loves everybody. Jesus always included the outcasts."

The protesters had gathered at dawn in the basement of a church from another denomination--the United Church of Christ--praying and singing before beginning their march. Some delegates gave them a thumbs-up sign as they entered the meeting, while others walked past without acknowledging them. The meeting, held once every four years, has been a forum for bitter disagreement over homosexuality since 1972. The recent case of the Reverend Karen Dammann, an openly lesbian pastor, has intensified the debate.

A jury of 13 pastors acquitted Dammann of "practices contrary to Christianity" at her March trial in Bothell, Wash. Conservatives called the verdict a "schismatic act," and they turned to the denomination's highest court to enforce the church ban on ordaining 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 council to review the case of Dammann, who admitted that she is in a committed relationship with a woman. The Judicial Council will release its ruling before the meeting ends Friday. It's unclear what action the high church court could take, since the church cannot appeal Dammann's acquittal. But the council retained jurisdiction over the Dammann case when it ordered that she be tried, and conservatives hope that will be enough for an intercession.

Dammann lawyer Lindsay Thompson submitted a brief to the court Monday accusing the church of breaking its own rules. "Essentially, they are trying to create a means of appeal of something that is not appealable," he said.

The nearly 1,000 delegates voted last week to affirm that marriage is the union of a man and a woman and were expected to consider several gay-related proposals before the week ends. One conservative measure would make it easier to charge openly gay pastors with violating church law. A liberal proposal would add a phrase to the church Social Principles acknowledging that Christians disagree on homosexuality.

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