186 churches sue UMC North Georgia Conference for halting disaffiliation process

View of the stage during the United Methodist Church's special session General Conference inside the Dome at America's Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019.
View of the stage during the United Methodist Church's special session General Conference inside the Dome at America's Center in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. | United Methodist News Service/Kathleen Barry

More than 180 congregations in Georgia have filed a lawsuit after their regional body of the United Methodist Church refused to allow them to disaffiliate amid a denominational schism over homosexuality. 

Last week, 186 churches filed a lawsuit against the UMC North Georgia Conference in Superior Court in Cobb County over the conference's decision last December to prohibit any more congregations from leaving amid a denominational schism over homosexuality. 

The Wesleyan Covenant Association of North Georgia, an unofficial conservative advocacy group that helped conservative churches form the Global Methodist Church breakaway denomination, released a statement explaining that the decision to sue comes "with a heavy heart."

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"We recognize that taking legal action against the UMC is a drastic step," the WCA of North Georgia stated. "Be assured that every possible option has been explored to avoid this moment."

"We trust that this present course will restore the process so we all can continue on this journey toward disaffiliation. … God has got this, friends, and he will see us through."

North Georgia Conference Bishop Robin Dease said in a statement that her "heart aches" over the congregations' decision to file the legal action. 

"While we review the lawsuit with the appropriate counsel, we will refrain from sharing details, however, we are familiar with the issues. Similarly, a lawsuit has been filed against the conference and its leadership by a church in Augusta," Dease stated.

"I affirm my commitment to honor and uphold the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, to be the best United Methodist bishop I can be, and to faithfully co-labor with you as we fulfill the mission of the Church."

The North Georgia Conference announced in December that it was putting a "pause" on the disaffiliation process, claiming that "any local churches have been misled about the disaffiliation process and have been presented with information about the process."

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

The conference further argued the pause in disaffiliations "will allow churches to gain more information about the real, rather than the false or hypothetical, future of our church."

In June 2022, before the disaffiliation pause, 70 congregations representing 9% of the conference's churches and 3% of its members disaffiliated from the UMC.

In 2022, over 1,800 churches had their disaffiliation votes approved by their respective conferences. The disaffiliations come in large part amid the denomination's ongoing debate on whether to allow the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of people in same-sex romantic relationships.

Although the UMC Book of Discipline currently bans both practices, many progressive clergy have refused to enforce the rules, and theological liberals within the UMC have engaged in a yearslong unsuccessful effort to change the denomination's stance. Some progressive denominational leaders have refused to follow or enforce the denominational rules on LGBT issues. 

In announcing the disaffiliation pause, the UMC North Georgia Conference refuted "Church leaders communicating that North Georgia Conference leadership is not following the Book of Discipline."

"In fact, the North Georgia Annual Conference and its leaders have taken no actions in conflict with the Book of Discipline," the statement read.

The conservative alternative to the UMC known as the Global Methodist Church was launched last year, with several hundreds of UMC congregations voting to join the new denomination. The launch came as the UMC announced that it would delay its General Conference meeting to 2024, the third time the General Conference was postponed since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Delegates were expected to negotiate a denominational split.

While many congregations have been allowed to disaffiliate, others have faced financial roadblocks or have had their disaffiliation votes outright denied, which has led to several lawsuits impacting various conferences. 

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