Judge rejects lawsuit against United Methodist Church over 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

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit by over 30 congregations that sued a regional body of The United Methodist Church and its bishop, accusing the denomination of an unfair disaffiliation process.

Last November, a group of 38 congregations filed a lawsuit against the UMC Western North Carolina Conference, its board of trustees and its bishop, Kenneth H. Carter, arguing that the regional body had an unfair disaffiliation process.

North Carolina Superior Court Judge Richard L. Doughton issued an oral ruling on Monday, in which he granted the Conference’s motions to dismiss the departing churches’ lawsuit.

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In a statement released Tuesday, the Conference said it was “grateful for this ruling, which further sustains the separation of church and state jurisprudence, especially for matters already resolved by The United Methodist Church’s internal church government’s adjudicative process.”

“United Methodist congregations are not autonomous. As the apostle Paul reminds us, the body, though it is made of many members, is one, each member belonging to all the others,” the Conference added.

“As United Methodists, we hold our churches and properties in common for the benefit of the denomination, each church, and the ministry and mission of The United Methodist Church locally and throughout the world.”

Filed in Iredell County in November of last year, the churches’ lawsuit argued that the Conference was “holding their church buildings and property hostage” by enforcing a trust on their properties that they called “a financial ransom.”

“This position is inconsistent with the decades-long pattern and practice of the UMC to allow local churches to disaffiliate and retain their church property without paying a ransom,” stated the lawsuit.

Although it was initially 38 congregations named in the lawsuit, two of them — Providence United Methodist Church of Marion and Christ United Methodist Church of Hickory — both withdrew from the lawsuit before Monday's hearing and oral ruling. 

David Gibbs III of the National Center for Life and Liberty, which represented the departing churches, told The Christian Post back in February that “we looked at the situation, the equities involved” and “we believe that the churches were right.”

“Bishop Carter has the absolute ability to end this litigation anytime he wishes to do so, and we would encourage him to engage with the churches as colleagues and to try to resolve it,” Gibbs said at the time. “We would be very open to that. But at this point, there has been no willingness on the Conference’s part to discuss.”

For his part, Carter issued a letter on Nov. 29, 2022, in which he lamented the lawsuit, and noted that, since 2019, 41 congregations had successfully disaffiliated from the Conference by following the regional body’s process.

“Again, much of this is about fairness and responsibilities churches have to each other,” wrote Carter. “For instance, an abrupt separation creates significant issues that could damage benefits and pensions for retired pastors and their spouses who devoted their lives to service.”

“Another example is the withholding of apportionment funds churches give to support our camps, as well as campus ministries, to natural disaster response projects, to food and homeless ministries, and to vital missions abroad.”

At the 2019 special session of the UMC General Conference, delegates voted to add paragraph 2553 to the Book of Discipline, the mainline Protestant denomination’s rulebook.

The provision gives congregations the right to disaffiliate from the UMC if they feel compelled by the denomination’s ongoing debate over LGBT issues or oppose any changes to the Book of Discipline regarding sexual ethics.

“If the church conference votes to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church, the terms and conditions for that disaffiliation shall be established by the board of trustees of the applicable annual conference, with the advice of the cabinet, the annual conference treasurer, the annual conference benefits officer, the director of connectional ministries, and the annual conference chancellor,” explained the paragraph.

“The terms and conditions, including the effective date of disaffiliation, shall be memorialized in a binding Disaffiliation Agreement between the annual conference and the trustees of the local church, acting on behalf of the members.”

Among the requirements, the local congregation is expected to pay “any unpaid apportionments for the 12 months prior to disaffiliation, as well as an additional 12 months of apportionments,” as well as all “costs for transfer of title or other legal work” regarding their property.  

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