Court sides with agency on use of funds

A UMNS Report
By Heather Hahn

The District of Columbia Superior Court has ruled that funds to construct the United Methodist Building were not given to only support work in the areas of temperance and alcohol. A UMNS photo courtesy of the GBCS.
The District of Columbia Superior Court has ruled that funds to construct the United Methodist Building were not given to only support work in the areas of temperance and alcohol. A UMNS photo courtesy of the GBCS.

The United Methodist Church’s social action agency can use funds given to the church’s building on Capitol Hill for advocacy beyond temperance-related issues, a District of Columbia judge has ruled.

In her Oct. 6 decision, Superior Court Judge Rhonda Reid Winston found “clear and convincing evidence” donations to the predecessor agencies of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society “were not restricted solely” to promoting temperance.

The 78-page ruling resolves a longtime dispute over whether the Board of Church and Society was properly using rental fees and endowment funds related the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. At stake was about $1 million in annual revenue, said Jim Winkler, the board’s chief executive.

“The most immediate impact is that (the ruling) lifts the cloud of suspicion that has been hanging over the agency for 10 years about the ‘misuse’ of funds from the United Methodist building,” Winkler said. “I think the judge was crystal-clear on that count. It’s great to have that sense of absolution that money is being used properly.”

The board’s trustees filed a request in early 2007 for a judge’s declaratory decision on the appropriate use of the building endowment funds. Specifically, the board sought a reformation of a 1965 Declaration of Trust to allow the use of the endowment fund for more than strictly alcohol-related matters.

The judge ruled in the board’s favor. She wrote that the authors of the 1965 trust declaration were mistaken in indicating that gifts made in the early part of the 20th century were meant only for temperance purposes.

“The exhibits clearly show that throughout the years, the Boards were also authorized to, and did, perform substantial work on other ‘public morals’ issues,” Winston wrote.

Intervenors’ concerns

The case went to trial Oct. 6, 2008, and Winston heard final arguments on Oct. 22 that year.

The attorney general’s office for the District of Columbia argued against the board. In addition, five individual United Methodists joined the case as intervenors, through a procedure that allows nonparties to have their voices heard in litigation.

The five intervenors — C. Pat Curtin, Carolyn Elias, Leslie O. Fowler, John Patton Meadows and John Stumbo — are all United Methodists who were delegates at one time or another to the General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body. One of the intervenors, Curtin, is now deceased.

The five were supported by the Coalition for United Methodist Accountability, which consists of three conservative renewal groups: Good News, the Institute on Religion & Democracy, and the Confessing Movement. The three groups have been frequently at odds with the Board of Church and Society over its advocacy work on social justice issues.

The Rev. Rob Renfroe, the publisher of Good News magazine and a former member of the Board of Church and Society, said the groups have not decided whether they will appeal the judge’s ruling. But he does not expect the disagreements with the board to end anytime soon.

“I find it very difficult to believe that people who originally gave money for this purpose to buy the Methodist building that they thought this money would ever be used to lobby for abortion rights or a particular health-care plan,” he said. “These are all things the Board of Church and Society has done.”

Winkler has a different take. The board is still involved in work advocating against drug and alcohol abuse as well as other social issues.

“I think social justice and evangelism are two sides of the same coin,” Winkler said. “I think our church decided a long, long time ago to have our voice in the public arena. … So as faithful Christians, we are in the halls of power speaking on behalf of the marginalized and the poor as well as peace and justice.”

Changing work

The Board of Church and Society is the successor to the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals and two other agencies of the former Methodist Episcopal Church. The temperance board led efforts to construct The Methodist Building in Washington, completed in 1923 at a cost of $650,000.

The Methodist Building, located next to the Supreme Court and across the street from the U.S. Capitol, is the only nongovernment building on Capitol Hill and was the first national Protestant agency to locate in Washington, according to the Board of Church and Society.

At the dedication in 1924, the building’s purpose was described as a “sentinel and a supporter for social reform in the Capital; a voice for the religious community, a visible witness.”
Its adjacent apartment and office complex, constructed in 1931, has been home to congressional representatives, Methodist bishops and Supreme Court justices.

Over the past decade, some church leaders have questioned the legality of using income from the building assets for purposes other than addressing problems related to alcohol, Winkler said. That led the board’s trustees to turn to the court for resolution.

“This is not a victory for the General Board of Church and Society; this is a victory for the entire United Methodist denomination,” said New York attorney Fredrick K. Brewington, chair of the board’s trustees. “The reason we brought this action was to settle this dispute so that we wouldn’t have this conflict within our midst.”

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.