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Florida Judge Says Court Has No Jurisdiction to Hear United Methodist Lawsuit

The United Methodist Church logo, left, and a map of districts in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Courtesy images

The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This story by Emily McFarlan Miller was published on April 20, 2023. It has been edited for length and a paragraph with context for the Christian Reformed Church has been added.

A Florida judge has dismissed a lawsuit originally brought by more than 100 United Methodist churches wishing to immediately disaffiliate from the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Eighth Judicial Circuit Court Judge George M. Wright granted a motion to dismiss the suit April 17, saying the court lacked jurisdiction.

“We applaud the court’s ruling today. This clarifies that if a church wants to leave the Conference, it must follow the rules established by the denomination,” Florida Bishop Tom Berlin said in a written statement from the Florida Conference. The statement said the court motion “reaffirms the Constitutional principle that secular courts do not have a role in settling matters of church doctrine.”

“We have always supported a process that allows for a gracious exit, and which ensures the departing churches meet their financial, legal, and moral obligations to not harm the Conference or the other member churches during their departure,” Berlin said

The conference has argued that the United Methodist Church’s top court, the Judicial Council, already ruled that churches wishing to leave the denomination must follow the disaffiliation plan approved by a 2019 special session of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference.

The judge granted its motion to dismiss the suit, though United Methodist News noted he left it open for an appeal.

The lawsuit filed last summer in Bradford County, Fla., by the National Center for Life and Liberty on behalf of 106 churches alleges the disaffiliation plan’s rules—which require churches to meet certain financial obligations before they can leave with their property — are “onerous, and in many cases, prohibitive.”

Since the special session, which strengthened language in the denomination’s Book of Discipline banning same-sex marriages and the ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy, leaders across theological divides negotiated a proposal to split the denomination. A vote on that protocol, which would have happened at the United Methodist General Conference, kept getting delayed. In the meantime, more than 2,000 churches have left the United Methodist Church—mostly conservative churches that believe the denomination is moving toward greater inclusion of its LGBTQ+ members.

At the time the suit was filed, the Rev. Keith Boyette, head of the conservative Global Methodist Church that broke away from the United Methodist Church last year, told Religion News Service, “Florida is the first of what I would anticipate might be a number of similar lawsuits occurring.”

Since then, the number of churches participating in the lawsuit has dwindled to 71 as others withdrew to follow the disaffiliation plan approved by the denomination, according to United Methodist News.

A second lawsuit, by 36 churches in North Carolina also represented by the National Center for Life and Liberty, was also dismissed last month.

©  2023 Religion News Service

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