The case of Amy DeLong

By Heather Hahn

For the first time in 20 years, a conviction for performing a same-sex union has not resulted in a United Methodist elder’s defrocking or indefinite suspension.

Instead, after seven hours of deliberations, a jury of 13 United Methodist clergy voted 9-4 to suspend the Rev. Amy DeLong from her ministerial functions for 20 days beginning July 1, 2011.

The jury, which is called a trial court, also sentenced DeLong to a more detailed process for a year after her suspension to “restore the broken clergy covenant relationship.” At least seven votes from the trial court of five women and eight men were required to approve a penalty.

“I hope this signals to folks around the country and around the world that the United Methodists in Wisconsin aren’t going to throw their gay children out,” said a smiling DeLong, sitting beside her partner of 16 years, Val Zellmer.

“I hope that this is the dawning of a new day that can include openness for all people,” she added.

The church trial, which began June 21 and ended June 23, was in the basement fellowship hall of Peace United Methodist Church in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. DeLong was charged with violating the United Methodist Church’s ban on non-celibate, gay clergy and the prohibition against clergy officiating at same-sex unions.

The trial court acquitted her of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” by a vote of 12-1. The same panel unanimously found her guilty of violating the prohibition against conducting ceremonies celebrating same-gender unions.

DeLong, 44, has been a clergy member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference for 14 years and serves as director of Kairos CoMotion, an education and advocacy group on progressive theological issues. She did not deny that she is a lesbian. Her counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell, argued successfully that church authorities had not proven she engaged in prohibited sexual activities.

Campbell is pastor of Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus advocating for greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church.

DeLong acknowledged she officiated at the union of Carrie Johnson and Carolyn Larson on Sept. 19, 2009, in Menominee, Wisconsin. Both women testified on DeLong’s behalf.

Larson told reporters she thinks the penalty provides an “opportunity for Amy to help the church make some sweeping changes.”

 

Detailed penalty

There have been six similar trials over the past 20 years.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, says all people are of sacred worth but states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The book bans “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being ordained or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church. It also says that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and forbids United Methodist clergy from officiating at same-sex unions.

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the counsel for the UM Church in the case, urged the jury to suspend DeLong indefinitely until she agreed in writing not to perform any more same-sex unions or the denomination’s law banning such unions is changed.

Lambrecht is pastor of Faith Community Church in Greenville, Wisconsin, and a board member of Good News, an unofficial evangelical caucus in the denomination. He began working for Good News in July.

The Rev. Greg Dell, now retired, faced a similar indefinite suspension in 1999 unless he agreed not to officiate at such unions. Dell refused, but the North Central Jurisdiction committee on appeals later amended the penalty to a one-year suspension.

DeLong, in her testimony during the trial’s penalty phase, said she would not make such a pledge. “Performing the holy union for the couple was one of the great joys of my ministry,” DeLong told reporters. “To sign such a document would say to the couple I married, ‘Your marriage is not valid.’”

The trial court did not explicitly require DeLong to decline future requests to officiate at same-sex unions, but it did instruct that she use her 20-day suspension as a period of spiritual discernment in preparation for a process of restoration.

The restoration process includes:

1. “Open and collaborative communication” between DeLong; Wisconsin Area Bishop Linda Lee; the Rev. Jorge Luis Mayorga Solis, the district superintendent who supervises DeLong, and the complainant in the case; the Rev. Richard Strait, chair of the Wisconsin Conference board of ordained ministry; and a Wisconsin United Methodist elder of DeLong’s choosing.

2. A written document initiated by DeLong that will outline procedures for clergy in order to help resolve issues that “harm the clergy covenant, create an adversarial spirit or lead to future clergy trials.” The document, the jury wrote, must be informed by the Bible, the 2008 Book of Discipline, Judicial Council rulings, and other relevant materials.

3. The first draft by DeLong in collaboration with the individuals named earlier is to be presented to the board of ordained ministry by January 1, 2012.

4. After review and editing by DeLong and the other designated church leaders, the final document is to be voted on in the clergy session of the 2012 Wisconsin Annual Conference.

The trial court added that failure to comply with their requirements will result in DeLong’s suspension from her ministerial functions for one year beginning June 3, 2012.

Lambrecht called the jury’s penalty “very creative.”

“It recognizes that there was a violation, in terms of offering suspension,” he said. “It creates a process that allows Rev. DeLong to reflect on this whole experience and to share some of what she has learned with the rest of the annual conference.”

The penalty, he added, “recognizes that there was harm done to the clergy covenant and that an adversarial spirit was created, and it asks her to reflect on ways to move forward that won’t lead to more church trials down the road.”

Like DeLong, Lambrecht expressed hope that the penalty portends “a positive thing for the future.”

 

Trial arguments

Leaders of the Wisconsin Annual (regional) Conference knew for more than a decade that the Rev. Amy DeLong was “a lesbian living in a loving, partnered relationship,” her counsel said in a pretrial statement on the morning of June 21, 2011.

In action and word, two bishops promised DeLong no charges would be forthcoming, said her counsel. Campbell contended that the church trial she was about to face was a violation of that promise and DeLong’s civil rights.

DeLong had acknowledged her lesbian partnership to Wisconsin conference leaders for more than a decade, Campbell said. She specifically told retired Bishop Sharon Z. Rader and current resident Bishop Linda Lee. “Because the church did not work in a timely manner, it cannot use what it has agreed to for many years to now cause her harm,” Campbell said.

“What is really at stake here is whether we as clergy will live in integrity under the terms of a covenant that we voluntarily agreed to,” the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the church’s counsel, told the jury in his opening statement.

“Rev. DeLong had the choice of living with integrity within the qualifications and requirements of our clergy covenant or of honorably withdrawing from that covenant when she found she could no longer live within it,” he said. “Instead Rev. DeLong has chosen to willfully violate the terms of our covenant and yet still seek to remain within it.”

Campbell said that DeLong does not dispute officiating at “a sacred service of covenant” for two women on Sept. 19, 2009. He argued that doing so was in keeping with the “highest laws” in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book.

DeLong’s defense did not dispute that she is a lesbian and she has been with her partner, Val Zellmer, for 16 years. But, Campbell said, DeLong has never “self-avowed” to a bishop or district superintendent anything that happens in the privacy of her relationship.

“Some of this may feel like nit-picking to you, and I can understand that,” Campbell told the trial court. “We are forced into such conversation because of the way the law of our church defines homosexual relationships.”

 

The complaintant

The Rev. Jorge Mayorga Solis is the district superintendent overseeing the conference’s extension ministries and is DeLong’s supervisor.

Mayorga Solis testified that DeLong gave him documents that showed the same-sex union service at which she officiated was similar in wording and structure to the wedding service in the United Methodist Book of Worship. The ceremony included a blessing, vows, exchange of rings, lighting of unity candle, and introduction of the couple.

DeLong also told her district superintendent of her domestic partnership. In May 2010, Mayorga Solis issued a formal complaint against DeLong.

As her supervisor, he said, “it was my responsibility to do it.” He did so, he said, “with a heavy heart.” However, he testified that he thought the holy union and her domestic partnership were both violations of the Book of Discipline.

“My understanding is that it is something sacred,” Mayorga Solis said. “When we are ordained, I believe we enter into covenant to uphold church laws.”

 

DeLong’s testimony

When questioned, DeLong declined to answer repeated questions from the church’s counsel about whether her relationship included “genital sexual contact.”

DeLong’s counsel contended that church leaders had failed to establish before the trial that DeLong engaged in prohibited sexual activities.

“Val is the love of my life; I can’t imagine my life without her,” DeLong said when asked to describe her relationship with her partner. “I have committed myself to her, and she has committed to me. We make a lot of our heterosexual friends jealous because they would like a marriage as fine as ours.”

She balked at Lambrecht’s questions about her sexual activity, which he said he was reluctant to ask. DeLong said such questions should have been asked during the fact-finding investigation before the trial.

After about 15 minutes of consultation among both counsels and the trial’s presiding officer, retired Bishop Clay Lee Jr., Lambrecht posed the question one more time.

“While I don’t fully understand what the word self-avowed and practicing means, I do know when it feels like a forced avowal, and that is what this is feeling like,” DeLong said. “My answer is still I will never, to anybody who is trying to do me harm, talk about the intimate, private behavior of my partner and me.”

She did testify that she has called herself “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” because that is what Book of Discipline calls her.

 

Closing arguments

Lambrecht addressed DeLong’s refusal in earlier testimony to answer his questions about her sexual activity. The Book of Discipline, he pointed out, allows witnesses to decline answering a question at a church trial only if the answer would incriminate them under state or federal law or if that testimony is based on a confidential communication with a clergyperson. Neither situation was the case here, he said.

“Therefore, the church would argue that Amy’s refusal to answer the relevant questions entitles us to assume that her answers would be adverse to her case,” Lambrecht said.

DeLong’s counsel countered that while DeLong has long acknowledged that she is a lesbian, the church has not established that she has engaged in prohibited sexual practices. Campbell also argued that her blessing of a same-sex union was in accordance with the denomination’s social principles.

“She knew that the social principles of our church implore us not to reject our gay and lesbian members and friends,” he said. “And so she said yes.”

During the penalty phase of the trial, Campbell called on three people identified as experts on church law and ethics:the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, retired pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington and former dean of Wesley Theological Seminary; the Rev. Tex Sample, retired professor of church and society at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.; and the Rev. Janet Wolf, an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual (regional) Conference.

Wogaman, Sample, and Wolf have advocated for the denomination to change its position on homosexuality. In 2000, Sample and DeLong co-edited The Loyal Opposition: Struggling with the Church on Homosexuality.

Wogaman testified that he hoped the jury would consider proportion in determining DeLong’s penalty.

He said there are forms of homosexuality that are “incompatible with Christian teaching,” echoing the wording in the Book of Discipline. Specifically, he mentioned promiscuity as a problem.

The question in same-sex unions, he testified, should be whether the two people involved “are God’s grace to each other.”

“We probably have been prone to take too harsh an attitude in these cases,” Wogaman said.

Sample testified that the Book of Discipline is not comprehensive on sexual issues. He said that the church law book says nothing about polygamy, even though it is a practice that many African United Methodists are trying to combat in their communities.

“If you are going to think about penalty, I would ask you in the name of fairness to say to yourself that we are really coming down hard (on) the issue of homosexuality and same-sex practices in the West,” he said.

“But the church is not being evenhanded here when it comes to polygamy and those kinds of expressions, and I think that is a serious problem in the church…,” he said.

Wolf, who works on church reconciliation issues, testified that she hoped the trial court could consider “restorative rather than retributive justice” in determining DeLong’s penalty. She asked the jury to be creative in considering resolutions and even suggested DeLong might be asked to lead “listening circles” for people on various sides of the homosexuality debate.

 

Penalty closing arguments

The United Methodist Church’s counsel asked the jury to suspend the Rev. Amy DeLong indefinitely until she agrees in writing not to perform same-sex unions or the denomination’s law on such unions is changed.

“Contrary to the statements of some of those who testified…, this is not some insignificant violation of the terms of the Book of Discipline,” Lambrecht told the jury of 13 clergy in his closing statement.

He reiterated that at stake is the covenant all United Methodist elders make to uphold the Discipline and abide by its provisions.

Lambrecht pointed out that as the church’s representative, he was not asking for DeLong to be expelled from church membership, nor does he want to deprive her of her credentials or remove her as a clergy member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference.

“The church’s main interest in terms of a penalty is that the requirements of the Book of Discipline are honored and complied with,” he said. “We want to make sure that DeLong will conform her future behavior to the requirements of the Book of Discipline so we are not back here in the future.”

In his closing statement, DeLong’s counsel countered that the jury has full discretion to determine the penalty. He mentioned a recent nonbinding resolution recently approved at the Northern Illinois Annual Conference that calls for clergy to receive a 24-hour suspension if they officiate at a same-sex union.

In previous trials regarding same-sex unions, he said, the Book of Discipline had been used as a club.

“We seek to terrorize compassionate pastors into withholding blessings from those whom the Discipline calls them to serve,” Campbell said. “This is not right, dear friends.”

DeLong’s actions were “not a violation of covenant but the vindication of conscience,” he asserted, drawing murmurs of  “Amen” from a crowd of many DeLong supporters.

After Campbell spoke, Lambrecht offered a rebuttal in which he told the jurors that they should consider the harm that will be done if they fail to adequately penalize DeLong. He said a lack of accountability will prompt some United Methodists to leave the church.

He also urged the jurors to keep in mind “our brothers and sisters in Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world.

“There is no disputing that becoming a more gay-affirming church would severely harm our church’s witness in other countries where our brothers and sisters are confronted with life-and-death circumstances in their conflict with radical Islam,” he declared.

Lambrecht also said only General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body, has the authority to expand the church’s definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. General Conference, he noted, consistently has voted against such an expansion.

 

Passionate dispute

The trial was the latest development in a longtime dispute within the United Methodist Church. Only General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, can change the Book of Discipline.

The subject of homosexuality has sparked discussion at every session of the quadrennial General Conference since 1972. Delegates consistently have voted to keep the restrictions.

The church’s division on the issue was evident during the DeLong jury selection.

The presiding officer, retired Bishop Clay Foster Lee Jr., asked all potential jurors whether any prejudice, bias, or opinion would prevent them from fairly applying the law in this case.

“I don’t know how one fairly applies an unfair law,” one said. Another announced strong support for the denomination’s stand on homosexuality.

Fifteen of twenty-three prospective jurors expressed reservations. Lee dismissed anyone who expressed strong opinions one way or the other.

Neither Lambrecht nor Campbell could say what the unusual penalty means for the 2012 General Conference.

Lambrecht expressed confidence that the church’s laws on homosexuality would be upheld. He noted that the next General Conference will include more delegates from outside the United States—particularly from Africa, where delegates tend to be more supportive of the denomination’s standards than their U.S. counterparts.

Campbell speculated that the verdict and penalty could affect General Conference discussions in various ways.

“There may be some who move to tighten laws,” he said. “There may be others who recognize that the time has come for us to stop trying to deal legalistically with matters of the heart, the spirit, and the soul.”

 

Singing with one voice.

DeLong’s trial drew more than 100 supporters, including some from as far away as Massachusetts and Oregon. They began and ended each day with prayer and singing.

While the jury deliberated on the penalty, the crowd of mostly DeLong supporters and a handful of those who support maintaining the church’s stance on homosexuality sang hymns and folk songs together. The presiding officer joined in some of the hymns.

The Rev. Ethan Larson, pastor of two United Methodist churches near Viroqua, Wisconsin, said before the penalty was announced that he thought DeLong should be under suspension “until she is willing to abide by the Book of Discipline.

Larson is the president of the Wisconsin Association of Confessing United Methodists, an unofficial evangelical group in the denomination that advocates keeping the current stance on homosexuality. He said that he did not know DeLong well but the two usually spoke to each other at gatherings.

Larson said the split verdict “came down the way it should,” given the limited information the church’s counsel was able to present in making the case. However, he found the arguments by DeLong’s defense team frustrating.

“To me, it felt as if verbal games were being played,” he said. “It was like ‘tag you’re it,’ but I wasn’t ‘it’ to begin with.”

Wisconsin’s Bishop Linda Lee said in a statement after the penalty was announced that a trial is a heart-wrenching and painful process. “Yet, we have hope because of our common faith in Jesus Christ, and trust that some growth and good can come from this,” she said.

“There continue to be difficult questions with no ready answers as we face the months between now and General Conference in 2012. My prayer is that, as Christians, and as United Methodists, we will use this experience as a gateway to reconciliation, healing and restoration of our relationship with one another and with Christ.”

 

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