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185 Georgia churches must be allowed to vote to leave UMC, judge rules

iStock/D:532811041
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A judge in Georgia has ruled that 185 congregations should be allowed to vote on whether to leave the United Methodist Church, ruling against a regional body’s recent attempt to put a stop to churches leaving the denomination.

In a decision on Monday made from the bench following an hours-long hearing, Cobb Superior Court Senior Judge Stephen Schuster ruled that the congregations have a “right to start the process by requesting a vote.”

Schuster noted that paragraph 2553 of the UMC Book of Discipline allows for churches to seek dismissal from the denomination in response to the ongoing debate over sexual ethics.

“The pause violated that right,” said Schuster. “They have a right, and I believe the North Georgia Council has an affirmative duty to assist them in holding a vote, if the church makes a call for a local church conference to have that vote.”

“And they have an equal right to make sure it’s done properly, within the contours of the Book of Discipline.”

Schuster also said that he found it “painful” to see the UMC going through “what at best can be described as a schism,” describing Methodism as “a backbone of America since the 1700s.”

For their part, the North Georgia Conference released a statement on Monday explaining that they're “exploring our opportunity to appeal” the Schuster ruling.

“Leaders of the Conference remain committed to handling this matter in a fair, transparent, and uniform manner,” the conference stated. “Most importantly, our focus continues to be on the mission of The United Methodist Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That is unchanging.”

Last December, the regional body announced that they will temporarily block member churches from disaffiliating from the UMC, citing concerns about the spread of misinformation.

The conference argued at the time that "many local churches have been misled about the disaffiliation process and have been presented with information about the process" and about the UMC leadership "that is factually incorrect and defamatory."

"We have significant concerns about this misinformation and are well aware that it has the potential to do irreparable harm," the announcement reads. "We do not have confidence in the validity of upcoming church conference disaffiliation votes."

In March, 186 congregations filed a lawsuit against the conference in Superior Court in Cobb County, with the unofficial conservative advocacy group the Wesleyan Covenant Association of North Georgia stating that the complaint came “with a heavy heart.”

Beginning last year, large numbers of UMC congregations have left the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States due to the Church’s ongoing debate over sexual ethics.

Although the UMC Book of Discipline prohibits the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals, many theologically progressive leaders have refused to follow or enforce these rules.

This resistance to the Book of Discipline has led many theologically conservative congregations to decide that they should leave the UMC, with most of them joining the newly launched Global Methodist Church.

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