Judge tosses suit from 36 NC congregations looking to leave Methodist church

A lawsuit by dozens of conservative United Methodist churches in western North Carolina wishing to break away from their governing body was thrown out of court Tuesday by an N.C. judge.

Superior Court Judge Richard Doughton of Iredell County tossed the complaint filed by 36 congregations after agreeing with a motion by the Western N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church that the lawsuit violated the separation of church and state.

“We are grateful for this ruling, which further sustains the separation of church and state,” Bishop Kenneth Carter, head of the conference, said in a statement.

“United Methodists throughout the world are compelled through a connectional covenant to support and uphold one another for faithful discipleship and the mission of Jesus Christ.”

The ruling comes against the backdrop of a massive cleaving of the worldwide denomination and its 6 million-plus members over the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ members.

Three years ago United Methodist leaders approved an exit process that would allow churches to leave by the end of the year and keep their property in return for paying two years of apportionments and pension liabilities.

However, the lawsuit, which was filed in November in coordination with the National Center for Life and Liberty, a conservative legal ministry with offices in California, Florida and North Carolina, calls those payments “ransom.”

It says the departing church should be allowed to leave without paying them. A similar lawsuit was filed in Florida last year..

“The conferences have taken the approach of bullying and beating on these churches on their way out the door and the churches are not willing to do that,” David Gibbs, the center’s lead counsel, told the Religion News Service in December.

“We’re talking about a business separation where one side is financially abusing or financially raping the other side in violation of their conscience and fair right.”

The attorneys for the 36 churches did not respond to an email from The Charlotte Observer seeking comment Tuesday. No one could be reached late Tuesday at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Steele Creek, a plaintiff in the suit.

James Howell, the longtime minister at Myers Park United Methodist, says the denomination has been embarrassed by its bitter longtime debate over LGBTQ rights.

“Most of us welcome all people,” he said. “We’re not the moral police, passing judgment or excluding others. We’re not very good at that. We try to be a welcoming body trying to do God’s work in the world.”