A day after convicting a Pennsylvania pastor of breaking church law by officiating at his son’s same-sex marriage, a Methodist jury suspended the Rev. Frank Schaefer for 30 days and told him he should surrender his credentials if he could not follow church doctrine.
The jury, made up of 13 pastors, heard testimony that Schaefer's actions had divided his congregation at Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa. They also heard from Schaefer, who refused to repudiate his conduct and refused to promise that he wouldn't do it again.
Jurors were continuing to deliberate how the penalty would be implemented, the church said on its blog. They could have chosen a punishment ranging from reprimand to defrocking.
The trial comes as the United Methodist Church continues to grapple with same-sex marriage. The current policy is that the church accepts gays and lesbians as members but does not allow clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages.
Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church doctrine on homosexuality, and about half a dozen face discipline for presiding over same-sex unions. Schaefer is the first to face this type of trial in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The trial was held at a United Methodist retreat center in Spring City, Pa. During the penalty phase, Schaefer defended his actions and refused to promise that he wouldn't perform another same-sex union.
“I cannot go back to being silent," he said, according to the church's blog. "I am now an advocate for LGBT people in the world and in the church.”
The church "needs to stop judging people, stop treating people as second-class Christians," he said.
Some witnesses testified that they had left Schaefer's church because he had officiated at the same-sex wedding.
“To me, it wasn't a good Christian example for ministers to say it's OK to break the rules of your church,” Christina Watson said, according to the Associated Press.
The Rev. Paul Stallworth, who leads a United Methodist task force on sexuality and abortion, testified that church law requires Schaefer be "openly rebuked" so that fellow clergy will think twice before officiating at gay weddings.
Schaefer's counsel, the Rev. Robert Coombe, asked the jury to show “love and grace.”
“You can uphold the discipline without being punitive and retributive,” he said.
Schaefer said he had officiated at his son’s wedding out of love.
Tim Schaefer, of Hull, Mass., said he had struggled with his homosexuality as a teenager and prayed every night that “God would make me normal, take this away from me.” He recounted in a column he wrote for the Huffington Post that he had contemplated suicide but knew it would devastate his family. Schaefer finally told his parents at age 17, and said they accepted him completely.
Years later, Schaefer wanted his dad to officiate at his wedding.
“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 before and again after the ceremony, which took place at a restaurant near Boston in 2007. He said he faced no discipline until April, when one of his congregants filed a complaint.
“It was really the ultimate kind of loving act of a father to choose supporting a son over the potential risking his whole career," Tim Shaefer told reporters.
The Rev. Schaefer has said that he could have avoided the trial if he had agreed to never again perform a same-sex wedding, but he declined because three of his four children are gay.
Schaefer's trial wasn't the first time pastors have faced punishment for officiating at gay weddings.
In 1999, United Methodist pastor Jimmy Creech had his clergy accreditation taken away after presiding over gay weddings. Also in 1999, pastor Gregory Dell was suspended for a year for officiating at a wedding between two men. And in 2011, a 13-member United Methodist jury decided to suspend the Rev. Amy DeLong, a lesbian clergywoman from Wisconsin, for officiating at gay weddings.
The Human Rights Campaign issued a statement Monday saying its members "stand in solidarity with Rev. Frank Schaefer ... and know that in his actions he is helping the United Methodist Church find its soul again."
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