Methodist judicial panel hears appeal over minister who officiated at gay son's wedding

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MEMPHIS, Tennessee — A Methodist pastor who was disciplined for officiating at his son's same-sex wedding will soon find out whether he can remain an ordained minister in the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination.

The Rev. Frank Schaefer was suspended and then defrocked last year after refusing to promise to refrain from conducting same-sex marriages in the future. The action against Schaefer — who officiated at his son's 2007 wedding in Massachusetts — was taken after a church trial in Pennsylvania.

An appeals panel restored Schaefer's pastoral credentials in June, but that decision is being challenged. The United Methodist Church's Judicial Council, the denomination's highest judicial body, heard arguments in the case Wednesday in Memphis.

The Rev. Scott Campbell, who represents Schaefer, told the council that Schaefer's defrocking was wrongly imposed as a punishment for a possible future action, something church rules do not allow.

The Rev. Christopher Fisher, representing the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, said the punishment was appropriately directed at Schaefer's refusal to promise that he would uphold the Methodist law book in its entirety, "the same condition required of every United Methodist elder," Fisher said.

While Schaefer is not the only Methodist minister to face church discipline for his stance on homosexuality, he is the most high-profile. His case has galvanized opposition to official church doctrine.

The United Methodist Church accepts gay and lesbian members but rejects homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching," and clergy who perform same-sex unions risk punishment ranging from a reprimand to suspension to defrocking.

Just before the Wednesday hearing, a group of about 50 of Schaefer's supporters, some coming from as far away as Oklahoma and Maryland, met in a downtown Memphis park to worship together. The group, wearing short rainbow-colored stoles, then walked together to the hearing and sat in the audience.

The Judicial Council is not expected to announce a decision until several days after its meeting concludes Saturday. Its decisions are final.

In an interview, the 52-year-old Schaeffer, who has been a minister for 21 years, said he was devastated when his ministerial credentials were taken away last December, but "so many good things" have come out of it.

Schaefer has been traveling the country giving talks and sermons on gay acceptance. And last month, he released a book about his experience — "Defrocked: How a Father's Act of Love Shook the United Methodist Church."

When his son first came out to him as gay, Schaefer said he learned that church doctrine had made his son believe he could not go to heaven.

"He did not want to live any more. He was in so much pain," Schaefer said. So when his son asked Schaefer to officiate at his wedding, the minister accepted.

"I did what I did based on my heart and my conscience," he said.

However, Schaefer hid his son's 2007 wedding from his conservative Pennsylvania congregation. The small, private ceremony was held in a restaurant in Massachusetts, where gay marriage had been legal for three years. Schaefer's actions did not become public until 2013, after a member of his congregation learned of the wedding and filed a complaint.

After hiding his true feelings and beliefs for years, "I could openly talk about my stance on gay rights and the church's homophobic doctrine," Schaefer said. Now, "Everywhere I go, people come up to me, both straight and gay, and tell me I have helped them."

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