Oklahoma high court rules against UMC churches prohibited from disaffiliating amid LGBT schism

The First United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, displays an LGBT rainbow decoration.
The First United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, displays an LGBT rainbow decoration. | Getty Images

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled against two congregations seeking to leave the United Methodist Church amid the ongoing debate on homosexuality within the denomination.

First United Methodist Church and Church of the Servant, both located in Oklahoma City, filed separate lawsuits to get the UMC Oklahoma Conference to allow them to hold disaffiliation votes.

After hearing oral arguments on Thursday, Oklahoma's highest court concluded that civil courts should not have a say in a religious body's disaffiliation process, reversing lower court rulings in favor of the congregations.

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In a statement published by The Oklahoman on Friday, the Oklahoma Conference said it was "thankful that the justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court have taken jurisdiction of the case, and we are looking forward to the written opinion of the court."

"We appreciate the time and attention the court has given to this important issue," the regional body added.

First Church leadership addressed the ruling in its most recent weekly newsletter, explaining that the congregation will consider next steps.

"Your Administrative Council is looking into what options are available to us as to our next path forward and will hopefully make a decision within the next few weeks," the newsletter states. 

"In the meantime, please continue to pray for God's guidance, continue to serve Him through the ministries of First Church and that no matter what, He will continue to be glorified in all that we do."

In April, the Oklahoma Conference held a special session where it voted to approve the disaffiliations of 55 churches.

First Church and Church of the Servant filed separate lawsuits against the conference in response to the regional body not allowing them to hold votes to possibly leave the UMC.

The churches believed the matters were property disputes, not cases about religious doctrine, insisting that the conference didn't want to lose their valuable properties even though it allowed other churches to disaffiliate. But the conference rejected that the case was simply a "property dispute." 

In July, Oklahoma County District Court Judge Aletia Timmons ruled in favor of First Church, concluding that the conference committed several actions that prevented the congregation from joining 55 other churches in disaffiliating. The judge ordered the conference and delegates to consider and vote on the church's disaffiliation.

In August, Timmons ruled in favor of the Church of the Servant, with the UMC district superintendent initially scheduling a church conference on Sept. 5 as part of the disaffiliation process. 

The conference appealed and argued that the district court rulings interfered with internal church processes protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Later that month, the Oklahoma Supreme Court put an emergency stay on the lower court ruling, preventing the vote from occurring until the litigation was completed.

Over 6,200 congregations have left the UMC since last year, driven to do so by the divisive debate over whether the denomination should allow the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals, which are prohibited by the UMC Book of Discipline.

Many progressive leaders within the Church have refused to enforce or follow the rules, prompting many theological conservatives to leave the denomination.

A conservative faction launched an alternative denomination known as the Global Methodist Church in 2022. Many disaffiliating Methodist churches have joined the new denomination, while others have become nondenominational. 

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