October 2012 GAPJC Decisions

The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission has issued rulings in several significant cases.

221-02 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through Presbytery of Newark v. Laurie McNeill

Most of the PC(USA) judicial cases involving marriage have addressed ministers conducting services for same-gender couples. In contrast, the Rev. Laurie McNeill was charged with violating W-4.9001 and [the now-amended] G-6.0106b for being married to Lisa Gollihue. The wedding was conducted in an Episcopal church in Massachusetts, with non-Presbyterians officiating.

The PJC of the Presbytery of Newark found Rev. McNeill not guilty of the alleged offenses, and that decision was confirmed by the PJC of the Synod of the Northeast. The GAPJC upheld the decisions of the lower courts, declaring that “[t]he facts of this case do not support disciplinary action under these provisions of the Book of Order.”  The GAPJC also commented on “the tortuous place in which the PC(U.S.A.) finds itself on the matter of same-gender marriage”:

Our Constitution, specifically this section of the Directory for Worship, did not anticipate the range of issues facing the church today surrounding same-gender relationships. In light of the number of cases coming before this Commission and the convoluted grounds upon which cases are brought and decided, it would be beneficial for the church to provide a definitive position regarding participation of officers in same-gender ceremonies whether civil or religious.

In 2010 when the case began, the Book of Order allowed an appeal of a not-guilty verdict, but a subsequent amendment to the Rules of Discipline removed the “double jeopardy” possibility, so that persons found not guilty by a Presbytery PJC can no longer be subjected to lengthy judicial processes.

The Covenant Network celebrates with Laurie and Lisa and is grateful to their marvelous attorneys, Mark Robertson and Todd Hambridge.

221-03 Wilber Tom, David Hawbecker, and Thomas Conrad v. Presbytery of San Francisco

Three members of the Presbytery of San Francisco challenged the terms of the Presbytery’s agreement to dismiss the Community Presbyterian Church of Danville to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, following the Presbytery’s (subsequently amended) “Gracious Dismissal Policy,” arguing that the Presbytery exhibited

a consistent failure to understand the meaning of the property trust clause as expressed in the Book of Order, a failure to have read or considered relevant Authoritative Interpretations of the Constitution, an apparent failure to understand that the PC (U.S.A.) owned the church property, a failure to grasp the fact that a transfer of the real property without consideration amounted to a gift, an exclusive reliance on the Presbytery’s previously approved dismissal policy as understood by members of the PET [Presbytery Engagement Team], a failure to understand how to apply the trust clause other than in the context of specific process steps in the policy, and a belief that the policy precluded even having a discussion about having the church property remain in the hands of the denomination or asking for any payment for the property upon its transfer.

While the Presbytery has already transferred the property to the congregation, the GAPJC agreed with the complainants and chose to “exercise its declaratory authority to provide guidance to lower councils and prevent future violations.”

Under the fiduciary obligations inherent in the Trust Clause, a presbytery must take into consideration the PC(U.S.A.)’s use and benefit of the property in every decision concerning its disposition. To comply with the Trust Clause, the presbytery must consider the interest of PC(U.S.A.) as a beneficiary of the property. Payments for per capita or mission obligations are not satisfactory substitutes for valuations of the property held in trust. (G-4.0203)

The Trust Clause reflects our understanding of the church as a communion of saints across time, with responsibilities both to those who came before and those who will follow. When a congregation seeks to leave the PC(U.S.A.), it is breaking what is often a significant historic relationship; it is also departing from a fellowship in which its officers have participated, by whose polity they have pledged to be governed, and with which many members may feel bonds of affection.

Based on an examination of the record, this Commission finds that the GDP [Gracious Dismissal Policy] developed by Presbytery, its implementation, and SPJC in its trial decision, failed to duly consider the economic interests of the PC(U.S.A.). Such consideration is essential…

221-04 Gerald J. Larson, Gary L Collins, Rebecca B. Prichard, R. Winston Presnall, Margery McIntosh, Michal Vaughn, Lucy Stafford-Lewis, Julie Richwine, Jerry Elliott, Sara McCurdy, Gregory Vacca, Gail Stearns, Steve Wirth, Suzanne Darweesh, Jane Parker, Darlene Elliott, Frances Bucklin, Deborah Mayhew, James McCurdy, Judith Anderson, Susan Currie v. Presbytery of Los Ranchos

Only a few months after G-6.0106b was replaced by G-2.0104b, the Presbytery of Los Ranchos adopted a resolution based on the former “fidelity and chastity” language:

Moved: That the Presbytery of Los Ranchos adopt the following statement interpreting this presbytery’s understanding of certain behavioral expectations of members.

Affirming that ‘The gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons.’ (G-1.0302) The Presbytery of Los Ranchos, meeting on September 15, 2011, affirms that the Bible, The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order (including G-2.0104b and G-2.0105 1 & 2) set forth the scriptural and constitutional standards for ordination and installation. Los Ranchos Presbytery believes the manner of life of ordained Ministers should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world, including living either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness and will so notify candidates for ordination/installation and/or membership in the presbytery. In obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture and guided by our confessions, this presbytery will prayerfully and pastorally examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office, including a commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions of ordination and installation.

Members of the Presbytery who believed that the resolution was unconstitutional filed a complaint against the action, arguing that the resolution would improperly discourage persons from seeking calls in Los Ranchos even before any opportunity to be examined as individuals.

While the PJC of the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii upheld the Presbytery action, the GAPJC disagreed unanimously:

This Commission determines, therefore, that by directing the notification specifically to those who would potentially seek admission into Presbytery, the Resolution would have the practical effect of discouraging those seeking ordination or membership prior to the required case by case evaluation or examination. In so doing, Presbytery exceeded its authority and duty to “bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience…” (G-3.0102) and its right and obligation to “nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ … includ[ing] ordaining, receiving, dismissing, installing, removing, and disciplining its members who are teaching elders…” (G-3.0301c).

As in Randall Bush et al. v. The Presbytery of Pittsburgh (Remedial Case 218-10, 2008) and Barlow J. Buescher et al. v. The Presbytery of Olympia (Remedial Case 218-09, 2008), when Presbytery combined current Book of Order language from G-2.0104a with former Book of Order language G-6.0106b, it created at least a perception of an improper restatement of the Constitution. As this Commission stated in both Bush and Buescher, “[r]estatements of the Book of Order, in whatever form they are adopted, are themselves an obstruction to the same standard of constitutional governance no less than attempts to depart from mandatory provisions.”

This Commission declares that the Resolution as written is unconstitutional and, therefore, void.

The GAPJC affirmed that members of examining councils have the freedom to vote their conscience as they consider candidates on a case-by-case basis, but that councils may not establish policies that pre-judge. This decision has implications for policies that were adopted by other councils in reaction to the adoption of Amendment 10-A.

Covenant Network Director Doug Nave ably represented the complainants.

Comments

  1. Jim Caraher says:

    With regard to the 221-03 case on the San Francisco Presbytery and the property trust clause, Presbyterians should be gratified that with some sad, even outrageous exceptions, Presbyterians have been treating departing congregations in gracious, Christ-honoring ways. That stands in stark contrast to the Episcopalians who have been treating departing congregations in harsh, vindictive ways. That denomination won’t even talk with congregations which are willing to pay full market value for the buildings they already built and paid for once, giving those congregations only the two choices of surrendering the property voluntarily or going to court. At their triennial conference last summer, Episcopalians learned that their denomination has spent $18 million in legal fees seizing the properties of their congregations in court. In one case in New York City, the denomination sold the property to a Muslim group for a price less than what the congregation offered. Anyone concerned about the integrity of the PC(USA) can fervently hope that this judicial decision in the case of the San Francisco Presbytery doesn’t result in Presbyterians embarrassing themselves and the cause of Christ in the way Episcopalians are embarrassing themselves.

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