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Keeping the Faith The Newsletter of the Interfaith Working Group
December 1999/January 2000

Trying to Make Issues Go Away

The big November religion story in the media was the move by Roman Catholic American Bishops to more closely control the teaching of religion at Catholic universities; but there were also two trials in the Presbyterian Church (USA), two congregations expelled by the Georgia Baptist Convention, a Texas court decision redefining gender, and what should have been the big story, considering the implications: the United Methodist Church trial of Jimmy Creech in Grand Island, NE.

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Last month we reported that the Permanent Judiciary Commission (PJC) of the Synod of the Northeast overruled two presbyteries (Southern and Northern New England) in cases involving ordination of sexual minorities. Cases involving the same PJC were heard in November: against the Presbytery of West Jersey for accepting Graham Van Keuren (who is gay) as a candidate for ordination, and against the Presbytery of the Hudson River over its action regarding the rights of sessions to approve ceremonies of holy union, understanding that they are not marriages. There are no actual PCUSA rules against commitment ceremonies or against accepting a gay man's candidacy. The charges in both cases were dismissed.

The Philadelphia Inquirer had excellent coverage of the West Jersey case, including a profile and color photo of Van Keuren, and an attempt to link his case to those in other denominations. According to a CNN story, Jeff Halvorsen and George Cisneros had a commitment ceremony in January at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, New York, "blessed by the Rev. Susan DeGeorge, one of several Presbyterian clergy who have conducted several such ceremonies." After this, the Hudson River vote overwhelmingly gave ministers "the freedom to decide whether to unite couples of the same sex." CNN also mentioned other cases in the PCUSA and other denominations. Long post-decision articles appeared in the Inquirer, Washington Post, Newark Star Ledger, and New York Times.

Georgia Baptists

The Georgia Baptist Convention voted to expel Decatur's Oakhurst Baptist Church and Atlanta's Virginia-Highland Baptist Church ("an inclusive community of faith where everyone is welcome"), for what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called "ordaining homosexuals and condoning same-sex unions." Reuters said the vote was "88 percent to expel Oakhurst and 90 percent to expel Virginia-Highland." The Oakhurst covenant says: "we reject any status in this fellowship in terms of church office, possessions, education, race, gender, sexual orientation, mental ability, physical ability, or other distinctions."

Gender and Marriage in Texas

In a case involving a wrongful death suit by a widow who was once legally male, the Texas Fourth Circuit Court ruled that marriage is only valid between a person with an XY-chromosome pair and a person with an XX-chromosome pair, regardless of their legal gender. In his decision, the Chief Justice asks (and answers) the question: "Is a person's gender immutably fixed by our Creator at birth?" He ignores that, medically, gender is determined by four factors which are sometimes not consistent with each other; that not everyone has an XY- or XX-chromosome pair; that most people never get chromosome tests; and that in most states, including Texas, legal gender is based on medical opinion, and can be changed.

Before the United Methodist Church Trial

On November 1 and 7, the Rev. Mel White of Soulforce sent open letters to "Bishops Grove and Martinez, The Jury Pool and All Trial Participants, All Clergy and Laity of the United Methodist Church," asking them not to participate in Jimmy Creech's trial. On November 9, Rev. Creech released a statement thanking everyone for their support, in all forms that support would take. Beginning Sunday, November 14, prayer vigils and support services for Rev. Creech were held around the country.

On the eve of the trial (November 16), Rev. Creech held a recommitment service for Jim Raymer and Larry Ellis, whose holy union service led to the charges against him. Following the service, one-hundred twenty people from across the nation (mostly United Methodists), organized by Soulforce, including clergy from the UMC and other denominations, began an all-night vigil outside the church where the trial was to be held.

The Day of The UMC Trial

On November 17, at 8 am, as the Presiding Bishop, prosecutor, and potential jurors arrived, Soulforce volunteers blocked the door, three deep, arms linked, singing, "We Shall Overcome." Bishop Grove asked them to move; they refused. Over seventy people were arrested.

Rev. Creech, who had declined counsel, refused to participate in the jury selection process, letting the prosecution select the entire panel; jury selection ended by 9:30. The trial began at 10:00 am. Rev. Creech did not enter a plea, so a "not guilty" plea was entered for him. He declined to make an opening statement or call witnesses. The prosecution called two witnesses: Rev. Creech and the complainant.

The prosecutor made a brief closing statement at 10:30. Rev. Creech then began his fifty-five-minute closing statement, calling the trial an act of violence against GLBT people, and raising the immorality both of the law he was being charged under, and UMC policy on sexual minorities in general. He talked about the lives of GLBT people he had known, the ideology of heterosexism and its moral equivalence to racism, the failure of the trial as a deterrent, and the punishment of the church. He asked the jury not to render a verdict.

The jury returned with a 13-0 guilty verdict at 1:15 pm. At 3:30 they announced that Rev. Creech's credentials as a United Methodist minister were revoked.

What Was Significant About the UMC Trial?

Before the trial the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) web site listed three significant things about the trial. The first two points listed were that it was the second trial for the same person and that his first acquittal forced a clarification of the rules. The third thing mentioned was that the Rev. Greg Dell was convicted under the same rule last March and suspended for a year. They failed to mention the widespread support for the accused, the use of civil disobedience with Rev. Creech's blessing, and his refusal to participate in the trial.

Media Coverage of the UMC Trial

Media coverage of the UMC trial did not approach the level of the first trial, nor last month's Soulforce action. It was covered by CNN, but not national network news. Stories were distributed by the AP and Reuters, but TV and newspaper coverage was mostly limited to Nebraska, Des Moines, Denver, Miami, Pittsburgh, and Raleigh.

The Omaha World Herald ran many stories, and a column and editorial criticizing Rev. Creech. The Grand Island Independent had interviews with Mel White and local clergy. The Lincoln Journal Star reported on the recommitment service (a "solemn religious ceremony") and members of the Association of United Methodist Evangelicals in Nebraska (trial supporters), who "spent part of the afternoon marching around the church praying and reading the Bible." Their trial story began: "It looked like a scene from the civil rights movement." They also conducted "person on the street" interviews, asking, "What would you have done as a jury member?" The Daily Nebraskan ran preliminary and follow-up stories interviewing local UMC clergy, representatives from pro-GLBT and Religious Right organizations, and GLBT people on campus. The reporter attempted to explain the conflict: "traditionally the Bible has been used to condemn homosexuality, but most Christians believe the teachings of Jesus Christ encourage acceptance and forgiveness of all people."

The Des Moines Register reported on Mel White's visit to Plymouth Congregational Church, "teaching the tactics of nonviolent resistance;" ran a guest opinion by the Rev. Steve Sabin, Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ames, who said, "rather than visiting Lynchburg, I suggest gay and lesbian couples visit the county clerk's office and stay there until they are either given marriage licenses or arrested;" interviewed two of "about 15 Iowans arrested and released;" and ran a column on the need for peacemakers in the UMC and ELCA.

The Denver Post ran a story on conflicts in the UMC. The Miami Herald and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on local events in support of Rev. Creech. The Raleigh News and Observer article reviewed Rev. Creech's career and said that the trial sent "a clear signal to the 44,000 ministers in the [UMC] that the denomination will not tolerate gay unions and will, in effect, fire those who perform them." The article also said, "In the short run, it also will lead gay and lesbian leaders and their supporters to find alternative places of worship, though it is unlikely to cause a permanent schism in the denomination."

Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition

The IWG has joined SPARC, the Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition, which sponsored IGNITE '99 in Harrisburg earlier this year as part of Equality Begins At Home, and held its annual conference in State College for activists in October. The conference featured a panel on "Spirituality, Religion, and the LGBT movement" with Neill Johnson (Sexuality and Faith Committee, University Baptist and Brethren), Chris Purdom (IWG Coordinator), and Laura Montgomery Rutt (National Organizer, Equal Partners in Faith; member, SPARC steering committee).

Reactions to the UMC Trial

Affirmation, In All Things Charity, Methodist Federation for Social Action and the Reconciling Congregation Program issued a joint statement which said in part: "We grieve for the church we love. The action of removing the ministerial orders of the Rev. Jimmy Creech is a travesty of justice and a violation of the integrity of the ministry of the church."

In a letter thanking United Church of Chapel Hill for their support of Rev. Creech, the Rev. John H. Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, wrote: "I am saddened by the action of the United Methodist Church to remove his clerical standing and am fearful that this disciplinary decision will have a chilling effect on the capacity of United Methodist pastors and congregations to exercise their pastoral responsibility to all the members of their congregations."

Rembert Truluck commented on November 18: "The conviction and sentencing of Rev. Jimmy Creech yesterday points up the desperate need for churches to find deliverance from the disastrous evil plague of misinformation about homosexuality and the Bible that threatens their very survival as credible spiritual institutions."

The Rev. Mel Luetchens, Bishop Martinez's assistant, said in an Omaha World Herald story: "Finally people are saying that this could be lethal. That could be the beginning of real understanding, if not reconciliation, between the two sides."

David Perkins, a Quaker and former United Methodist, announced on the IWG's religion email list that he had written to the church where he was baptized, asking them to expunge his baptismal record, and that they had regretfully complied.

Just the Facts

GLSEN (the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network) announced that "Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth" was mailed to over 15,000 school district superintendents. The new publication is from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Psychological Association, American School Health Association, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers, National Education Association and the Interfaith Alliance Foundation. ABC News' Nightline featured a debate between representatives from the Interfaith Alliance and the Traditional Values Coalition, and clips of Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council (FRC), who said: "This is really about turning the classroom into a bully pulpit, about advancing one world view." Parshall (ironically) also speaks for the FRC's "Hang Ten" program, an effort to post the Ten Commandments in schools and other public buildings.









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