There is a judge, a jury, a de facto prosecutor and a defense attorney in this trial that has the outward appearance of any legal proceeding seen in most countries. But this legal system answers to a higher calling than civil law.
The Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, Pa., entered a plea of not guilty as the trial of the United Methodist minister who officiated at his son’s same-sex marriage began on Monday. He is accused of breaking church law barring same-sex marriages and his defense is that he just took God’s love and extended it to his son when he officiated at the 2007 ceremony in Massachusetts.
[Updated, 2:20 p.m. Nov. 18: The 13-member jury, all pastors, got the case Monday night. If convicted, Schaefer could lose his standing in the church.]
On Monday morning, a crowd of observers lined up outside a United Methodist retreat center to show support. The trial is being held at Camp Innabah, in Spring City, Pa., and although the proceedings are public, no electronic equipment is allowed in the courtroom.
On Sunday night, Schaefer told supporters he was encouraged but added he doubted that he would be acquitted and the worst punishment would be for him to be defrocked.
“I feel that this is the home stretch after all we worked for the last few months,” the minister said after a day of local vigils and demonstrations in support of his position. “I feel encouraged by the outpouring of support, really from all over the world and the U.S. So many people who prayed for me and expressed support.
“I want to make a strong statement that what I did was in good conscience,” he said, according to press reports.
Same-sex marriage has politically and socially divided the nation, though it has grown increasingly more accepted. In a July 2013 Gallup poll, 52% of Americans said they would vote for a law legalizing gay marriage, and 42% said they would not. As recently as 1996, polls showed that 68% said they did not believe same-sex marriages should be valid, while 27% said they approved.
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act in June, the number of states backing gay marriage has increased. At present, 15 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing gay marriage and a 16th state, Illinois, is scheduled to join within days when the governor signs a bill that has already passed the legislature.
But what is acceptable and legal within secular societies can have a different standing in religious groups.
The United Methodist church, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, also rejects homosexuality as being contrary to Christian teaching and bars its clergy from performing same-sex marriages. However, gays and lesbians are allowed to be full members of the church.
The Methodists' same-sex policy, reaffirmed by the 1,000-member General Conference in 2012, has divided the church. Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church doctrine on homosexuality, and some face discipline for presiding over same-sex unions. Schaefer, pastor of Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, is the first Methodist minister to face this type of trial in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.
“Public opinion has changed very rapidly,” said Tim Schaefer, 29, at whose ceremony his father officiated. “I hope this leads to a renewed conversation to revisit these policies to see if they are a little archaic.”
Schaefer, of Hull, Mass., told the reporters in recent days that he will testify on his father's behalf.
The defense wants “to highlight how hurtful the policy of the church is toward the LGBT community,” he said.
Tim Schaefer said he struggled with his homosexuality as a teenager and prayed every night that “God would make me normal, take this away from me.” He told the Associated Press that he contemplated suicide but knew it would devastate his family. Schaefer finally told his parents at age 17, and he said they accepted him completely.
Years later, Schaefer knew he wanted his dad to perform his wedding ceremony.
“I remember thinking I have two choices: I can ask my dad and know I am putting him in a position ... where he would risk his career, or I could not ask my dad and really risk hurting his feelings. I think he would have been devastated if I hadn't asked him,” he said.
Frank Schaefer has said he informed his superiors and again after the ceremony, which took place at a restaurant near Boston. He said he faced no discipline until April when one of his congregants filed a complaint.
Schaefer has told reporters that he could have avoided a trial if he had agreed to never again perform a same-gender wedding, but he declined because three of his four children are gay.
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