12 judges recuse themselves from UMC church disaffiliation lawsuit

A worship service at First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro, Arkansas, on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.
A worship service at First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro, Arkansas, on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. | Screengrab: Facebook/First United Methodist Church

As many as 12 judges have declined to reside over a lawsuit filed by a United Methodist Church congregation in Arkansas seeking control of church property after the regional conference rejected its disaffiliation vote and suspended its pastor. 

The judges have cited conflicts of interest or the need to avoid the appearance of impropriety to recuse themselves from the property lawsuit by First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro, KAIT reported.

The Craighead Circuit Clerk's Office sent a request to the Arkansas State Supreme Court for a special judge to be assigned to the case.

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The Jonesboro church also filed for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to block The Arkansas Conference of the UMC from any attempt to prevent its congregation from using the church building during the pendency of the lawsuit, the outlet added.

The lawsuit comes as hundreds of other congregations across the United States have voted to leave the UMC amid an ongoing debate over the denomination's official stance on LGBT issues.

First UMC voted to leave the denomination on July 31. The congregation reported over 1,300 members participating in the vote, with 69% voting in favor of disaffiliation and 31% voting against it.

The UMC Arkansas Conference rejected the disaffiliation request from First UMC and two other churches while approving the disaffiliation votes of 35 other congregations at a meeting in November. The conference also voted down the disaffiliation requests of First United Methodist Church of Cabot and First United Methodist Church of Searcy.

"The three churches who did not receive ratification for disaffiliation, have the option to restart the process or resubmit to the next called session, which date has not been officially announced yet," stated the conference at the time.

The Jonesboro congregation then held a meeting on Dec. 15 in which over 600 members overwhelming voted in favor of disaffiliation from the UMC. In response, the regional body suspended First UMC Senior Pastor John Miles for holding the Dec. 15 meeting. Arkansas Bishop Gary Mueller argued that the vote violated the UMC Book of Discipline.

In a statement, Mueller said that the disaffiliation meeting "was not authorized in accordance with our long-held church structure."

"Rev. Miles was instructed not to hold the unauthorized meeting but proceeded to do so," Mueller said. "The vote, which purported to adopt new 'bylaws,' was in violation of The Book of Discipline and illegal according to Arkansas State law."

"I am deeply saddened that we find ourselves in the current situation," the bishop added. "No one wins, and we all lose; most of all the Body of Christ and the mission to which Jesus calls us. I want to ask you to pray that hearts of peace will prevail and a positive way forward will be found."

Miles assured the congregation at the time that the rejection was "not the end of the line" and there was "much more we can do." The church filed a lawsuit in December seeking a court declaration that the regional conference doesn't have “any legal, beneficial, or equitable interest in any of the real or personal property held by the Jonesboro Church.”

The UMC Book of Discipline labels homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching" and prohibits the blessing of same-sex unions or the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.

Some theological liberals in the UMC oppose the Book of Discipline's stance but have failed in their efforts to change the language. Some prominent leaders in the denomination have refused to enforce the rules.

In January 2020, a theologically diverse group of UMC leaders agreed to advance a proposal at the next General Conference to create a new Methodist denomination for those who oppose changing the Book of Discipline.

Although General Conference had been scheduled for later in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led the UMC to postpone the churchwide legislative gathering multiple times. The UMC decided to again delay General Conference to 2024.

In May, the Global Methodist Church launched as a theologically conservative alternative to the UMC, which has attracted many congregations as hundreds of churches have left the UMC this year.

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