Methodist pastors who have defied a church ban on marrying gays were dealt a setback Wednesday when clergy members hearing a church trial found a colleague guilty of marrying a lesbian couple in 2009.
The 13-person jury of clergy members unanimously convicted the Rev. Amy DeLong of Osceola. They found the 44-year-old not guilty of a second charge of being a "self-avowed practicing homosexual." That vote was 12-1.
After the verdicts were announced, church officials heard a second round of testimony to help jurors recommend a penalty that could range from suspension to defrocking. Their decision was expected to be announced Thursday morning.
The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, the Greenville pastor who conducted the prosecution, called the conviction "a just verdict."
"Speaking personally and not as counsel for the church, I think the Scripture is clear on how we're called to exercise the gift of human sexuality," he said. "The church is quite consistent that we exercise that gift in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman."
Efforts to reach DeLong by phone were not immediately successful.
"I'm sure it was very difficult for the jury to deliberate on both charges," said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, a DeLong supporter. "I'm not surprised, though. I've been listening to the jury instructions and I'm not sure how the jury could have come to a different conclusion."
Robbins, of the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, is one of several Methodist leaders across the country encouraging his colleagues to disobey the church ban on marrying gays. The efforts have gained momentum, as hundreds of pastors from areas including Illinois, Minnesota, New York and New England signed statements in recent weeks asserting their willingness to defy the rule.
While other mainline Protestant denominations have become more accepting of openly gay leaders, the Methodist church has been reluctant to join them. Its rulebook, called the Book of Discipline, forbids clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages, under penalty of discipline or dismissal from the church.
The chances of reversing the rule are far from certain. Rule changes must be approved by delegates at the church's General Conference, held every four years. Because a growing number of delegates come from Africa, the Philippines and other theologically conservative regions, voting patterns reflect strong resistance to change.
DeLong said she told her supervisors years ago that she was in a lesbian relationship and felt comforted by the support and caring she received in response. She admitted later marrying the lesbian couple and said she was speaking out because she could no longer protect the church's policy.
DeLong's acquittal on the charge of being a self-avowed practicing homosexual appeared to be based on the fact that she declined to answer in court whether her relationship involved sexual contact, Lambrecht said.
"The charge is based on a person avowing for themselves," he said. "When she refused to do that, that ended it."
DeLong can appeal if she believes the penalty handed down for her conviction on the charge of marrying a gay couple is too harsh.
The church cannot appeal if it thinks the penalty is too light, although it can appeal if it feels a flaw in the trial influenced the outcome. Lambrecht declined to say whether he saw anything in the trial that might merit an appeal.
Mark Tooley, president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy, an advocacy group for conservative mainline Protestants, said a lenient penalty will anger traditionalists, while a harsh penalty will mobilize more liberal members. Either way, Tooley predicted the impact of DeLong's case would resonate far outside Wisconsin, he said.
"I think what's happening in the United Methodist Church is that more and more people on either side of the issue are becoming unable to live with the status quo," he said. "The fact that we're talking about a wide range of responses (to DeLong's conviction) shows the struggle of the church having to live with its diversity of opinion."
United Methodist Church: http://www.umc.org
Amy DeLong trial news: http://loveontrial.org
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.