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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A Methodist pastor who became a gay rights activist after he was disciplined for officiating at his son's wedding to another man will soon find out whether he can remain an ordained minister in the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer was suspended and then defrocked last year following a church trial in southeastern Pennsylvania when he would not promise to uphold the Methodist law book, which bans clergy from performing same-sex marriages.
An appeals panel restored Schaefer's pastoral credentials in June, and that decision was appealed to the United Methodist Church's highest judicial body. The Judicial Council was to hear arguments Wednesday during a meeting in Memphis. The council is not expected to announce a decision until several days after its meeting concludes Saturday. Its decisions are final.
In reinstating Schaefer this June, the earlier appeals panel found he had been wrongly punished for possible future actions. The panel suggested it was not making a broader statement about the church's position on homosexuality but based its decision solely on the facts of Schaefer's case.
Schaefer had initially hidden his son's 2007 wedding from his conservative Pennsylvania congregation. The small, private ceremony was held in a restaurant in Massachusetts, where gay marriage had been legal for three years. A member of Schaefer's congregation later learned of the wedding and filed a complaint in April 2013.
Schaefer could have avoided the subsequent trial and kept his ordination by promising he wouldn't perform another same-gender wedding. But he refused, declaring he would officiate at other gay marriages if asked.
The 52-year-old Schaeffer, who has been a minister for 21 years, has said that when he was defrocked in December of last year, he initially thought he had lost everything.
"There was a moment of pain and depression, and the next thing I knew, I was catapulted. I have more opportunities now than I ever did," he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Since then, Schaefer has been traveling the country giving talks and sermons on gay acceptance. He was transferred to the California conference of the church, effective July 1. And last month, he released a book about his experience — "Defrocked: How a Father's Act of Love Shook the United Methodist Church."
While Schaefer is not the only Methodist minister to face church discipline for his stance on homosexuality, he is the most high-profile, and his case has galvanized opposition to official church doctrine which accepts gays and lesbians as members while at the same time calling sex outside of heterosexual marriage "incompatible with Christian teaching."
Supporters of the policy have also stepped up their organizing, pressing church leaders to act when church law is violated. And some conservative pastors have called for a breakup of the denomination, which has 12 million members worldwide, saying the split over gay marriage is irreconcilable.