MILWAUKEE – A gay Methodist pastor from western Wisconsin was suspended for 20 days Thursday for officiating a lesbian wedding, marking a modest victory for traditionalists in a growing rift over recognition of gay and lesbian partnerships in the church.
The Rev. Amy DeLong of Osceola never denied marrying the couple, an act that prompted a church trial this week in Kaukauna. A jury of clergy convicted her Wednesday by a 13-0 vote.
The jury could also have chosen to defrock DeLong. Instead it limited the penalty to the suspension, which will begin July 1.
"The suspension is to be used for spiritual discernment, in preparation for a process seeking to restore the broken clergy-covenant relationship," the jury's ruling said.
The jury also demanded DeLong draft and present a document outlining issues that harm the United Methodist Church's clergy covenant. If she doesn't comply she'll be suspended for another year starting in June 2012.
DeLong did not immediately respond to a telephone message. One of her supporters, the Rev. Scott Carlson of Sun Prairie, told The Associated Press he thought the penalty was fair.
"I think the jury pool showed creativity," Carlson said. "It shows they took their role seriously, that they considered how healing might come to the Annual Conference."
The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, who represented the church in DeLong's trial, said officials were "pleased that the penalty recognizes that a violation took place and that there is a consequence for that violation."
"We're encouraged that the process could create the opportunity to move in a more positive direction," he said.
Methodist pastors in areas including Illinois, Minnesota, New York and New England have begun defying the ban on marrying gay couples, saying it violates the church's teaching of inclusion.
Church officials counter that the prohibition is consistent with Christian teaching, and that God's love doesn't necessarily equate to acceptance of all behaviors.
DeLong, 44, had faced two charges: marrying a same-sex couple and being a "self-avowed practicing homosexual."
The second charge, on which she was acquitted 12-1, refers to a Methodist term allowing gays to serve as clergy as long as they remain celibate. The not-guilty verdict appeared to be based on the fact that DeLong declined to answer in court about whether her relationship involved sexual contact.
Her suspension reflects a degree of leniency compared to several previous decisions. In 2005, a Methodist minister from Germantown, Pa., was defrocked for being in a lesbian partnership. A senior pastor in Omaha, Neb., was defrocked in 1999 for performing a same-sex union.
Delong's trial arose at the same time some Methodist pastors are speaking out about overturning the church rule prohibiting clergy from marrying same-sex couples or conducting blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions.
Their calls have increased the pressure for the church to join other mainline Protestant denominations that have become more accepting of openly gay leaders. But those Methodist pastors represent a small proportion of the church's clergy, and the chances the ban would be reversed are questionable.
Rule changes must be approved by delegates at the church's worldwide General Conference, held every four years. Because a growing number of delegates come from Africa and other theologically conservative regions, voting patterns reflect strong resistance to change.
An advocacy group for conservative Protestants said the fact that DeLong was convicted in a fairly liberal region suggests delegates to the 2012 conference in Tampa, Fla., won't be looking to reverse the rule.
"The church's liberal faction likely does not face a very bright future," said Mark Tooley, president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy.
The Rev. Richard Harding doesn't see it that way. The 86-year-old pastor in Massachusetts said he has defied the same-sex-wedding ban since he retired more than 10 years without drawing any complaints. He said the ban only drives away talented clergy and younger members consider it out of touch.
"I don't know how much longer this can last," he said of the ban. "I don't think we're going to see too many more trials."
DeLong never denied marrying the lesbian couple. While she avoided discussing her own lesbian relationship in local church settings, she said her efforts to live halfway in the closet and halfway out took such a toll that she finally decided to speak out.
"When I entered (the ministry) I did not suspend my conscience," she said a few days before the trial began. "It's incumbent on me not to perpetuate its unjust laws."
Harding lauded DeLong's stand.
"It's hard to hang in when you're part of an institution that's discriminating against people in this way," he said. "But I guess you either stay in and fight or get out, and that doesn't do any good. So hang in."
United Methodist Church: http://www.umc.org
Amy DeLong trial news: http://loveontrial.org
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.