Church trial of lesbian minister to begin

A Methodist minister living in an openly gay relationship faces a church trial to begin Wednesday that could remove her from her ministry. The Reverend Karen Dammann, who acknowledged her sexual orientation and relationship three years ago, will be tried by a jury made up of fellow pastors. The trial is to determine whether she broke church law, which prohibits the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." Dammann is currently on family leave from Ellensburg United Methodist Church in Washington State. Last week the pastor married her partner of nine years, Meredith Savage, in Portland, Ore., where county officials began issuing gay marriage licenses earlier this month. The couple have a 5-year-old son. "I wanted to be supportive of the effort to move our culture" toward open acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships, Dammann, 47, told The Seattle Times. "We wanted to add our relationship to all the others that stand to be recognized."

Similarly, Dammann hopes her trial, scheduled to start Wednesday at Bothell United Methodist Church, will help move society and the church toward greater acceptance of gay clergy. "It pushes [the issue] to the arena of real people, human beings that you can see," she said. "And I think it's a good thing for our family at this point. We do need some resolution."

Retired bishop William Boyd Grove of West Virginia will preside at the trial. If a jury of fellow clergy, selected from a pool appointed by Pacific Northwest regional church leaders, finds Dammann guilty, she may be removed from the ministry. Dammann's trial has caused turmoil within the church. "If a majority of Methodists believed that the homosexual cause was just and belonged in the church, it would've been voted into the national conference. That hasn't happened," said Richard Tate, 67, a member of Ellensburg United Methodist Church. "That's because the majority of Methodists believe as I do--in traditional values."

At the same time, members of Reconciling Ministries Network, a Methodist group that advocates for people of all sexual orientations, plan to support Dammann at the trial. And Soulforce, a national interfaith gay rights group, plans to have at least 100 members at the trial in the hopes of disrupting it. "We feel the symbolism of this trial is extremely important," said the Reverend Mel White, executive director and founder of Soulforce. Dammann "was a pastor with tremendous success, but because she was honest about her relationship with another woman, for simply saying who she is, the United Methodist Church has decided to try her."

Since the late 1980s, church leaders from the Pacific Northwest have petitioned to reverse the church's stance against homosexuality at each of the denomination's General Conferences, held every four years, and will try again next month in Pittsburgh. During past international General Conferences, most attendees advocated against changing church policy. At Dammann's trial, nine of 13 jurors are needed to convict. If Dammann is found guilty, a decision she could appeal, the same jury would also decide her penalty. The most serious would strip her of ministry. If she is acquitted, she will be considered in good standing and available for new assignments. The church would not be allowed to appeal that verdict.

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