(Photo: UMC / Amy Zellmer)
A jury of 13 Wisconsin ordained elders convicted a lesbian minister of performing a September 2009 same-sex wedding for a lesbian couple despite a United Methodist Church ban on the practice.
However, the jury acquitted the Rev. Amy DeLong on a second charge of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” The vote was 12-1.
The United Methodist Church permits gay and lesbian ministers to serve as long as they remain celibate. The church does not permit clergy to perform same-sex marriage rituals.
DeLong is a partnered lesbian who has served as a clergy member for 14 years. Along with officiating at a lesbian couple’s union in 2009, she also registered with her same-sex partner of nearly 16 years under Wisconsin's Domestic Partnership Law that same year. She reported both actions to the annual conference.
The three-day trial, which began Tuesday, is now in the penalty phase, which includes additional testimony from witnesses, and could result in DeLong being defrocked.
The penalty phase could last through Thursday, according to a church spokesperson.
On Tuesday, the church’s counsel said finding DeLong not guilty of violating church laws has the potential to "open the church to chaos and eventual schism or disintegration."
"The issue is in fact not homosexuality per se," said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht. "Instead it is about the integrity of our clergy covenant."
The evidence, he said, shows that DeLong violated the ban in The Book of Discipline against "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" serving as clergy and the bar on clergy.
Lambrecht argued that clergy cannot unilaterally do what they see as right.
A church spokesperson said the courtroom crowd of DeLong supporters groaned as Lambrecht used the example of a pastor who against the congregation’s wishes chooses to support a food pantry by stealing from the congregation's offering.
DeLong's counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell, countered that while DeLong has long acknowledged that she is a lesbian, the church has not established that she has engaged in prohibited sexual practices.
He also argued that her blessing of a same-sex union was in accordance with the denomination's social principles.
Both Campbell and Lambrecht said in their closing arguments that the ruling in this case could have a monumental impact on the denomination, where homosexuality has been a point of contention for nearly 40 years.
"She knew that the social principles of our church implore us not to reject our gay and lesbian members and friends," he said. "And so she said yes."
DeLong’s counsel asked the jury to consider a wider context in his closing statement.
“You have come to one of those watershed moments life,” Campbell intoned. “The eyes of the church are upon you today … the world is watching as well. There are thousands beyond these walls who will form their impression of The United Methodist Church by what they read of your decision.”
A bishop, designated by the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church bishop, presided over the controversial case this week against DeLong, who pleaded not guilty Tuesday for openly defying church laws.
Leaders say it is the first trial in the history of the church to address such matters.
Lawyers defending DeLong said the trial reminds them of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century.
"Just as history has judged slavery and the exclusion of women from ordained ministry, history will judge the church in this instance, too," said Campbell. "What we decide here is momentous. It will be with us for the rest of our lives."
DeLong, 44, testified today and did not dispute the facts of the case.
But Campbell said the evidence does not support the claim she is a self-proclaimed "practicing" homosexual.
When Bishop Linda Lee, leader of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church, convened the trial shortly after noon Tuesday she called it a "heart-wrenching time in the life of the church."
"Our process is an adversarial one," she announced in court. "Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose."
DeLong, of Polk County, refused to discuss the sexual nature of her relationship with her partner on the stand Wednesday, which is a focal point in the trial.
Church records show the audience was audibly shocked when Lambrecht asked DeLong, “Does your relationship with your partner include genital contact?”
“There is no way, when are you trying to do me harm, that I am going to answer that question,” DeLong replied in court.
“I understand that the answer is really important to you,” DeLong said. “But you’re fishing for facts that should have been established before the trial.”
The church counsel continued to argue Wednesday that there is “clear and convincing” proof DeLong broke church rules.
The church’s Judicial Council defines “practicing homosexuality” as engaging in prohibited “genital sexual acts” with a person of the same gender.
Ron Messer, a local resident and church member of UMC, said he attended the trial because it will make history.
“The issue of same-sex marriage has been a hot topic for a while now and I am completely against it,” Messer told The Christian Post.
“This topic has now made into our church records and instead of us focusing on the Lord and His work, we are arguing about who sleeps with who and that, by the way, is against the Gospel. It does seem like a witch hunt and are we fond of those stories? I say no?"
In a United Methodist church trial, an individual responds to a charge or charges of having violated denominational law, as set forth in the Church’s Book of Discipline.
A trial is described as a “last resort” in the Book of Discipline. When a complaint is filed against someone, the matter is first addressed in a supervisory process and usually resolved. If resolution does not occur, the complaint may be forwarded to the conference committee on investigation, which conducts hearings and decides whether grounds exist for converting the complaint to a charge for trial, according to church records.
The committee notified DeLong on Dec. 10, 2010, of its decision to move forward with a trial.
DeLong, a clergy member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, currently serves as director of an advocacy group.
Church records also show that The United Methodist Church has nearly 8 million lay members and 46,000 ministers in the United States. There are nearly 500 United Methodist Church congregations in the state of Wisconsin, including about 50 in northeast Wisconsin.
Readers can follow the trial in real time at: www.umc.org/DeLong