Judge OKs Arkansas church’s lawsuit against UMC to save church property

Attendees participate in a worship service at First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro, Arkansas, on July 3, 2022.
Attendees participate in a worship service at First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro, Arkansas, on July 3, 2022. | YouTube/ First United Methodist Church Jonesboro Arkansas

A judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a congregation that voted to leave The United Methodist Church and took issue with the conditions over securing its church property.

First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro, Arkansas, filed a lawsuit against The UMC Arkansas Conference last year, arguing that the regional body has no right to its property.

Judge Gary Arnold decided on Tuesday to allow First UMC’s lawsuit to go forward, rejecting a motion to dismiss the complaint and scheduling a trial for Jan. 29, 2024, The  Sun reported. 

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A couple of days before the ruling, Arkansas Bishop Laura Merrill announced her decision to appoint the Rev. Britt Skarda as interim pastor for First UMC, with him assuming the role effective Wednesday until June 30.

First UMC's pastor, the Rev. John Miles, was suspended in December, reportedly due to his holding a second meeting in which congregation members again voted in favor of leaving the UMC. 

“First United Methodist Church in Jonesboro has experienced great challenges in the past months, and I am grateful for Rev. Skarda’s willingness to serve at this time. I am confident that he and the church will work together toward healing and strength,” said Merrill, as quoted in the announcement.

Last July, First UMC voted to disaffiliate from the mainline Protestant denomination, being one of nearly 2,000 congregations to leave in recent times due largely to the Church’s ongoing debate over homosexuality.

Approximately 1,300 First UMC members took part in the vote, which was held after an 18-monthslong discernment process, with 69% voting in favor of disaffiliation while 31% were opposed.

In a letter to the congregation before the vote, First UMC’s administrative board expressed support for disaffiliation and sought to join the Global Methodist Church, a recently launched theologically conservative alternative to the UMC.

“Our congregation has been consistently clear that the shifts in theological teaching and the failures of the UMC to enforce the doctrinal discipline do not reflect the beliefs of the strong majority of our membership,” the board stated.

“By completing the process as outlined by the Discipline and our conference, we will be released from the United Methodist Denomination and retain full ownership of all of our church property and be free to join the Global Methodist Church.”

In November, however, the Arkansas Conference rejected the disaffiliation vote of First UMC while approving the disaffiliation votes of 35 other congregations in the regional body.

In addition to First UMC of Jonesboro, the conference rejected the disaffiliation requests of First United Methodist Church of Cabot and First United Methodist Church of Searcy.

Last December, the Jonesboro church filed suit against the Arkansas Conference, arguing that the UMC does not have “any legal, beneficial, or equitable interest in any of the real or personal property held by the Jonesboro Church.”

“Jonesboro Church now moves to quiet title and seek a declaratory judgment from this Court affirming that Defendants do not have any right, title, or interest in its real or personal property pursuant to an alleged trust clause or equitable lien,” read the suit.

Shortly after the complaint was filed, 12 judges recused themselves from the case, citing conflicts of interest or the need to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

The Craighead Circuit Clerk's Office had to send a request to the Arkansas State Supreme Court to assign a special judge to preside over the litigation.

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