Seventy-four congregations in Florida have left the United Methodist Church over the denomination's longstanding debate over its stance on homosexuality.
In a virtual special session Saturday morning, the UMC Florida Conference approved the disaffiliation votes of 74 churches in a final vote of 557 in favor and 36 against.
During the session, some delegates spoke against approving the disaffiliation of specific congregations, arguing, among other things, that the process was not correctly implemented.
According to the proceedings, 43 churches granted disaffiliation on Saturday were part of a lawsuit filed in 2022 against the Florida Conference, claiming that the disaffiliation process was unfair to congregations seeking dismissal.
In April, Circuit Judge George M. Wright of the 8th Judicial Circuit Court in Starke ruled against the churches, stating that "a secular court must avoid entanglement in internal church matters or doctrinal matters by deferring to the decision of the highest ecclesiastical body on these issues."
"In this case, the Plaintiffs admit that they are affiliated with the UMC," Wright wrote. "The Plaintiffs seemingly acknowledge that this court cannot resolve the dispute under the current state of the law in Florida."
After the disaffiliation votes were approved, Florida Bishop Tom Berlin told those leaving the UMC that he "wished them well" in their future ministry work.
"To those of you who are disaffiliating, to those of you who are now leaving the United Methodist Church and the Florida Conference, the vast majority of you leave in peace," Berlin said.
"You are people who want to start in a new way, and you hope to effectively share the gospel with others. I hope you are able to do so. I hope that people come to Christ because of your church and your work."
For those staying with the UMC, Berlin said that "the work before us is not to make people stay United Methodists" but rather "to go forth and share Christ so that people may become Christians who are United Methodists."
Over the past few decades, there has been a divisive debate within the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination over whether to amend the UMC Book of Discipline to remove language banning the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.
Although efforts to change the Book of Discipline at the UMC General Conference have failed, some progressive leaders within the denomination have failed to follow or enforce the rules.
In 2019, at a special session of the UMC General Conference, delegates approved Paragraph 2553, which created a process for leaving the UMC, which would expire at the end of 2023.
According to numbers compiled by UM News accessed Monday morning, approximately 7,400 congregations have left the denomination since 2019 under the provisions of Paragraph 2553, including 192 churches in the Florida Conference.