Methodists reinstate pastor defrocked in gay-wedding case

Frank Schaefer on Tuesday was reinstated as a Methodist minister by a church panel that found the Pennsylvania pastor was wrongly defrocked in December for officiating at his son's gay wedding.

A committee of lay church members and clergy said Schaefer's sentence unjustly required a promise to uphold the church's laws in the future if he wished to receive back his ministering credentials at the end of a suspension.

"Our clergy can only be punished for what they have been convicted of doing in the past, not for what they may or may not do in the future," the decision stated.

The decision marked the latest twist in a case that drew a national spotlight to rural Pennsylvania, and fueled debate about views on same-sex marriage within organized religion.

It could also be pivotal for the United Methodist Church. As Schaefer and gay rights advocates celebrated Tuesday's decision, conservative groups continued to talk of a potential schism in the church, and said ministers such as Schaefer who flout church laws must be held accountable.

Schaefer's case could be appealed further to the church's Judicial Council, its highest appeals body.

A jubilant Schaefer made clear Tuesday that he will perform same-sex marriages in the future, even if it means risking further punishment.

"If the question is asked, 'Pastor Frank, will you perform gay weddings again?' The answer is, 'Absolutely,' " he said Tuesday, standing before reporters and supporters at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown.

The committee that heard his appeal Friday in Baltimore upheld a 30-day suspension as Schaefer's sentence for officiating at his son's wedding. Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pa., has already served that suspension.

Bishop Peggy Johnson, head of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, said she will reinstate Schaefer as a full-time minister. But the case - and the broader debate over marriage - will continue, she said.

"It's another step, but I don't see it all over, really," Johnson said. "It's going to go on, and on, and on."

Johnson has said she believes the church's views on homosexuality are discriminatory, but maintains that she followed church law by referring Schaefer's case to a higher office.

Schaefer was charged last year with breaking doctrinal law by officiating at his son Tim's same-sex wedding in 2007 in Massachusetts. He was found guilty by a jury of his peers at a November trial in Chester County.

A month later, Schaefer's ministering credentials were revoked when he rejected the options given to him by that jury: Promise to uphold the Methodist doctrines at the end of a 30-day suspension, or step aside.

Schaefer's counsel objected to the sentence at Friday's hearing, saying it attempted to hold him accountable for future actions, and not the one with which he was charged: blessing a same-sex union. The Rev. Christopher Fisher, who prosecuted the case for the church, argued the 30 days acted as a "grace period" after which Schaefer's real penalty was to be imposed.

Fisher on Tuesday declined to comment, and said he had not yet decided whether to appeal the outcome.

The decision stated that the outcome was based on the church's laws, and not its members' views of same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, support for a split has increased among conservatives, with some saying the church cannot stay whole if one faction refuses to live by the church's rules.

"This decision will certainly strengthen the call for such separation," said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, an evangelical conservative reform and renewal movement.

Those within the church who support same-sex marriage called the decision a step toward acceptance rather than toward a schism.

"It represents a big step along the way toward full inclusion," said Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network.

Standing Tuesday in the same church in which he had appeared, deflated and depressed, after he was defrocked in December, Schaefer could not stop smiling.

"Our movement is growing by leaps, and bounds, and we're unstoppable," he said, donning the same rainbow stole that he wore during his trial. "This will lead to change."

John Lomperis, of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank, called on Schaefer and other liberal Methodists to leave the church rather than try to change it.

"Any way we go from here, we will lose a significant number of people on one side or another," Lomperis said.

Schaefer will move to Southern California, where a bishop had offered him a position the day after he was defrocked. His new appointment will be effective July 1, Bishop Minerva Carcaño said. Schaefer said he is moving because Methodists in California are more accepting of same-sex marriage, though he vowed to remain an advocate for gay rights within the church.