Methodist factions do battle in Cobb hearing over disaffiliation
May 16—MARIETTA — Methodists battled in court Tuesday during the first hearing in a lawsuit between approximately 185 Georgia churches and the body that governs them.
A ruling had not been made by press time, but Cobb Superior Court Senior Judge Stephen Schuster indicated he planned to make a decision Tuesday.
The churches, which include nine Cobb-based congregations, are suing the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. The dispute stems from the conference issuing a pause in the process through which local churches can leave the UMC denomination.
United Methodists are in the midst of a schism over social issues, namely same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ people.
UMC churches can disaffiliate from their denomination and retain assets, if they do so because they disagree with the denominational stance on LGBTQ participation in the church.
The process for disaffiliation is laid out in paragraph 2553 of the UMC's church law, the Book of Discipline. That section, however, sunsets at the end of this year.
Last December, the North Georgia Conference of the UMC, which governs more than 600 churches, paused the disaffiliation process, citing a need to correct misinformation.
The plaintiffs asked Judge Schuster to issue an injunction lifting the pause and enabling local churches to vote on disaffiliation.
Tuesday's hearing pitted the 185 churches against the North Georgia Conference as the parties debated whether an injunction should be issued. It brought a large crowd, and observers watched proceedings in overflow rooms elsewhere in the courthouse.
A looming deadline is the North Georgia Conference's annual meeting, scheduled for June 1-3. In order for churches to disaffiliate, their decision must be ratified at the annual meeting. Last summer's meeting saw North Georgia Conference member churches ratify the decision of 70 churches to disaffiliate.
(A special meeting could also be called in the fall, the plaintiff's lawyers said.)
In their suit against the conference, the 185 churches argue that the pause, combined with the sunsetting of the 2553 provision and the fast-approaching June meeting, amounts to a conspiracy by the defendants to "run out the clock."
David Gibbs III, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, compared the situation to a basketball game.
"I went to Duke, but we used to play North Carolina," Gibbs said. "And before the shot clock, they had the old four corners. They'd get four big guys and they'd just throw the ball back and forth and run out the clock. And Dean Smith won a lot of ball games, and that's why the shot clock came in. We're up against a four corners game right now."
Gibbs said that churches across the country have financial concerns about their denominations. His clients have lost confidence that staying in the UMC is in their best interest.
"Remember, these are all nonprofit charities, these are organizations that under the IRS operate as religious, charitable, educational institutions," Gibbs said. And so as charities, they have to make a fiduciary decision. Are we more effective in what we're trying to do in our communities and for our families, within the United Methodist Church? Are we more effective outside of the United Methodist Church?"
The assets of UMC churches are held in trust for the benefit of the entire denomination. Gibbs said the 2553 provision is a powerful right for local churches.
If they can't disaffiliate using 2553, churches would have to pay fair market value to retain their property, something most can't afford, Gibbs said.
Due to the pause, hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate is now frozen, Gibbs said.
The conference has argued that the court doesn't have jurisdiction in this matter, and that granting the injunction would rob the UMC of its religious freedom rights under the First Amendment.
Gibbs said that wasn't the conference's stance in 2021, when it sued east Cobb's Mt. Bethel Church when it sought to disaffiliate.
"The conference that is arguing today, that there's no authority for this court to do anything, when they want this court to do things, they will put their names under the plaintiff and they will sue churches," Gibbs said.
On the conference side, local lawyer Wick Cauthorn laid out his clients' case in opening arguments.
"Throughout 2022 there was an influx of corrupting misinformation with regard to the United Methodist Church and North Georgia Conference," Cauthorn said. "Things that had absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality, but were designed to encourage local congregations, especially conservative congregations, to try to leave the North Georgia conference and the United Methodist Church."
Cauthorn argued that the conference was within its rights, as leaders in a hierarchical religious organization, to institute the pause.
"The big thing, judge, is that ultimately, the decision on whether a church gets to leave lies with the annual conference," Cauthorn said, referring to the delegates who will gather in June.
Schuster asked Cauthorn, if that's the case, why the North Georgia Conference wouldn't let local congregations vote, which must occur before the June meeting.
"Based on the judgment and the observations on the ground by the district superintendents, it was not possible to have a trustworthy vote within a local congregation," Cauthorn said.
Cauthorn further argued that it was not possible for the conference to facilitate votes in the 185 congregations before June. He pointed out the suit was filed three months after the pause, and the first hearing was only recently requested.
On the subject of Methodists and their views on homosexuality, Cauthorn said members were free, as individuals, to leave the church. Disaffiliation, he said, is a far more dramatic step.
"That's kind of a hard one," Schuster said. "Because where I live, you can throw a baseball and hit six Methodist churches. In a small town, you have seven generations buried in the back of one. So some people can't walk as easily as you would allow."
Nine Cobb churches are involved in the suit. According to 2022 North Georgia Conference data, the largest is Due West UMC, with 4,815 members, followed by McEachern Memorial UMC (3,592 members) and Kennesaw UMC (1,673 members).
The other six churches all have memberships ranging from 50 to 500 members. They are Mountain View UMC, County Line UMC, New Beginnings UMC, Covenant UMC, St. Stephen UMC and Shiloh UMC of Kennesaw.