UMC conference can’t stop church from pursuing disaffiliation, judge rules

First United Methodist Church of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. | Screengrab:

A judge has ruled that a United Methodist Church congregation in Oklahoma can't be prevented from pursuing disaffiliation from the denomination, ruling against the regional body.

Oklahoma County District Court Judge Aletia Timmons ruled in favor of First United Methodist Church of Oklahoma City on Monday, concluding that the Oklahoma Conference had wrongfully delayed the congregation's process of discernment.

Timmons ruled that the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference committed several actions that prevented the congregation from joining 55 other churches in disaffiliating during a meeting in April. He ordered the conference and delegates to consider and vote on the church's disaffiliation.

According to The Oklahoman, the ruling gives the conference until Aug. 6 to hold another disafiliation gathering to hold the vote in which delegates from the 55 churches that have disaffiliated must be allowed to vote. 

First UMC member Hardy Patton, a spokesperson for the congregation, told the Oklahoma City-based KOCO News 5 on Tuesday that he was "ecstatic with the ruling because we were looking for a way to be made whole."

Patton also said that while the conference "never specifically told us" why there were delays in the discernment process, he speculated that First UMC's property had something to do with it.

"But obviously, this is a very valuable building. Whether or not they wanted to have the building or control the building, whatever the case might be, we think that played a large role," Patton continued.

"We have always been a traditional, conservative-minded church. I think it will be back to business as usual. Hopefully, we can get back to actually focusing on ministry instead of focused on litigation."

The UMC Oklahoma Conference opposed the ruling and intends to appeal "without delay," saying in a statement shared with media that the decision "interferes with what is and should be an internal church process protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."

"The District Court has no right to intervene in the internal affairs of a religious entity, and this unwarranted and erroneous decision represents a threat to all institutions of faith within the State of Oklahoma," the conference argues. "This is not a property dispute."

In April, the Oklahoma Conference held a special called conference in which they voted to approve the disaffiliations of 55 congregations that had been part of the UMC regional body.

Oklahoma Bishop James G. Nunn said in a statement emailed to The Christian Post at the time that he recognized "how painful and emotional these decisions are for all involved."

"I am comforted that the process for today's vote was carried out according to the requirements identified in our denomination and conference disaffiliation agreements," stated Nunn.

First UMC of Downtown Oklahoma City was not allowed to proceed with the disaffiliation process, with members believing that the conference was acting unfairly. 

On June 1, First UMC announced filing a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Conference, with Patton saying that his church had "exhausted every other avenue."

"At least 75% of our congregation expressed a desire to disaffiliate, which is well above the 66% threshold, so we expected a relatively seamless transition," said Patton at the time.

"Unfortunately, leaders within our governing body have unfairly impeded our departure by deliberately ignoring their own rules and procedures. We allege their motive is greed."

Beginning last year, thousands of congregations have successfully left the UMC due to the mainline denomination's ongoing debate over whether to allow for the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of people in same-sex romantic relationships.

Although the UMC Book of Discipline prohibits both practices, many progressive leaders within the denomination have refused to follow or enforce the rules.

This has led large numbers of conservatives to leave the UMC, with many departing congregations affiliating with the recently created Global Methodist Church. 

According to numbers compiled by UM News accessed Wednesday, nearly 6,200 churches have left the UMC since 2019, with more than 4,100 departing this year alone. 

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