- A Florida judge has granted a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by churches seeking to leave The United Methodist Church without the costs associated with disaffiliation.
- The Florida Conference hailed the ruling, noting that it reaffirms the principle in the U.S. Constitution that civil courts do not have a role to play in church doctrine.
- While not ruling on the merits of the case, the judge appeared to welcome the prospect of an appeal.
A Florida county judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed last summer by churches seeking to leave The United Methodist Church with property but without paying the required exit costs under church law.
Because of current mandates from Florida courts, Eighth Judicial Circuit Court Judge George Wright concluded in the order released April 18 that “this Court does not have jurisdiction to adjudicate the claims raised in the Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint.”
Initially, 106 churches had joined together in the legal action filed last year against the Florida Conference, its then Bishop Ken Carter and other conference leaders. Since then, multiple churches have withdrawn from the suit to instead follow the denomination’s exit procedures. The current lawsuit now involves 71 churches.
In their lawsuit, the plaintiff churches denounced increasing defiance across the denomination of church policies banning same-sex marriage and noncelibate gay clergy. The exiting churches were seeking to transfer to the conservative breakaway Global Methodist Church that launched last year.
The Florida Conference issued a statement April 18 hailing Wright’s order for reaffirming “the Constitutional principle that secular courts do not have a role in settling matters of church doctrine.”
In the order, Wright noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected “entangling courts in consideration of doctrinal matters.”
Bishop Tom Berlin, who currently leads the Florida Conference, said that the judge’s order also clarified that if a church wants to leave the denomination, it must follow the rules established by the denomination.
“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,” he said in a statement.
The Florida judge’s order comes after a judge in North Carolina dismissed a similar lawsuit brought by 36 churches in the Western North Carolina Conference.
The National Center for Life and Liberty, a non-Methodist legal nonprofit, represents churches in both lawsuits. The center is also involved in lawsuits against other United Methodist conferences that are ongoing. The nonprofit has been working on legal strategy with the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the traditionalist advocacy group that organized the new Global Methodist Church and is recruiting for the new denomination.
The National Center for Life and Liberty announced that it plans to appeal the North Carolina judge’s decision. David Gibbs III, the nonprofit’s president, said National Center for Life and Liberty likely will take similar action in the Florida case. “We will be meeting with our clients this week and most certainly plan to appeal and have the higher courts determine whether Florida law needs to change,” he said.
Wright’s order indicated the judge’s sympathy for the churches filing the lawsuit and that he would also be open to an appeal.
“The Court cannot say that the Plaintiffs’ complaint demonstrates an absolute lack of a justiciable issue,” Wright wrote. However, he said previous decisions by higher Florida courts have basically tied his hands.
He noted that states are free to use different methods to adjudicate intra-church property disputes so long as those methods don’t violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
Most states apply the neutral-principles approach, meaning they seek to resolve disputes on a case-by-case basis using the same property rules that apply in the secular world.
However, because of Florida Supreme Court precedent, the state is among the minority that use what is called the deference method. What that means is that the state’s courts show “deference” to the decision made by the highest church body involved in the matter — in this case the property decisions made by the annual conference.
“The Court finds that the Plaintiffs have raised a good faith attempt to change the existing law from mandatory deference to a neutral principles approach,” Wright wrote. But that may only be accomplished on appeal.
Since the 18th century, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have maintained in governing documents a trust clause, which states that all church property is held in trust for the entire denomination. John Wesley, the Methodist movement’s founder, instituted the practice of requiring deeds to include this trust clause.
Annual conferences like the Florida Conference — regional bodies containing multiple congregations and other ministries — typically are the enforcers of the trust clause.
But after increasingly intense debate about LGBTQ inclusion, The United Methodist Church passed a provision in 2019 that offers U.S. congregations a limited release from the denomination’s trust clause if they meet certain procedural and financial obligations.
Those requirements include at least a two-thirds vote for disaffiliation by the congregation’s members and majority approval by its annual conference, which consists of voting members from multiple congregations. To exit with property, churches must also pay a fair share of the conference’s future pension liability and two years of apportionments — shares of church giving that support ministry beyond the local church.
The church law, Paragraph 2553 in the denomination’s Book of Discipline, also allows conferences to add requirements that are not inconsistent with the provision. For example, the Florida Conference board of trustees requires any disaffiliating church to procure liability insurance to protect itself, the Florida Conference and other conference churches against claims made after disaffiliation.
So far, 2,095 congregations — including 17 congregations in the Florida Conference — have cleared the necessary hurdles under Paragraph 2553 to withdraw. That represents about 7% of The United Methodist Church’s U.S. congregations, and not all are heading to the Global Methodist Church.
Last year, the Judicial Council — The United Methodist Church’s top court — established Paragraph 2553 as the Book of Discipline provision that churches should use to disaffiliate.
Paragraph 2553 is set to expire at year’s end, and so far, 27 U.S. conferences have scheduled special sessions to take up requests for church disaffiliations.
That includes the Florida Conference, which has scheduled a special session on April 22 where it plans to vote on the disaffiliation of 55 congregations. The Florida Conference plans to hold additional special sessions on Aug. 5 and Dec. 2.
The Florida Conference currently has about 570 churches and 300 Fresh Expressions, new faith communities and ministries that could eventually grow to be new churches.
“Amid this fractious debate, we remain prayerful and respectful for the process and thankful for the legal team that so ably represents the Conference,” Berlin said in the Florida Conference statement.