The Florida United Methodist Church’s emerging split widened last week after two decisions moved more than 100 combined churches closer to leaving the denomination.
On April 17, a Bradford County judge ruled against a group of churches trying to leave the denomination without paying to keep their properties. On Saturday, a Florida UMC special session voted overwhelmingly, 93% to 7%, to allow 55 churches to leave the denomination through its prescribed path, which includes compensation.
At least two-thirds of each church voted to leave the UMC in order to arrive at the special session, including churches from Gainesville, Alachua and Ocala.
The departures represent the acceleration of a split in the UMC over human sexuality issues. Three churches left the Florida UMC in 2021 and 14 other churches followed suit last year, all due to opposition to the UMC’s decision to allow same-sex marriage and LGBTQ pastors.
With the 93% vote on Saturday, the 55 churches will officially disassociate once they’ve fulfilled the obligations of Paragraph 2553 from the UMC’s Book of Discipline. This paragraph, created in 2019, outlines how a church may leave the UMC because of positions on human sexuality.
The obligations require local churches to provide a certificate of insurance for their properties and pay apportionments for all of 2023 and 2024. Apportionments are percentages of local church income sent to the governing UMC to finance missions, pastors and other church activities.
For the 55 churches, the financial obligation varies from $1.1 million for Bay Hope in Lutz to $4,491 for New Hope in Citra. The splitting churches also represent 15% of the total Florida UMC membership as of Dec. 31, 2022.
If the terms of Paragraph 2553 are satisfied by June 1, the church may officially leave the UMC. If not, the church will remain a part of the UMC until the obligations are paid before two other special sessions scheduled for Aug. 5 and Dec. 2.
Another group of around 70 churches is also attempting to leave the UMC, but instead of using Paragraph 2553, the churches sued the UMC in 2022. The lawsuit began with 106 churches, but various churches dropped out over the last year, with some opting into the Paragraph 2553 route.
On Feb. 21, Judge George Wright heard oral argument on a motion by the UMC to dismiss the lawsuit entirely. The hearing happened in Bradford County, and church members and pastors packed the small courtroom to listen.
Wright issued his decision on April 17, siding with the UMC and dismissing the churches’ lawsuit. He also denied the UMC’s motion to issue sanctions and ruled a third motion as moot because of the dismissal.
The UMC argued that secular courts have no authority to rule in the matter. UMC attorney Gregory Hearing claimed the split constituted an internal matter for the church that the First Amendment defends.
Meanwhile, attorney David Gibbs III argued that the issue only pertains to trust law and who—the churches or the UMC—gets to keep the money and properties. He said Wright can weigh the matter without breaching the First Amendment and called the agreement between the UMC and the churches an “abusive prenuptial.”
Wright agreed with Gibbs that the Supreme Court does allow the court system to apply neutral law principles to determine religious property disputes, but he said that allowance doesn’t apply in this case.
In his order, Wright said his district court has no authority as higher courts have addressed the matter and tied its hands.
"Although the [UMC] raise a number of grounds for dismissal, the ultimate issue this Court must address is whether the present law in the State of Florida requires a secular court to defer to the decision of the highest ecclesiastical body regarding an intra-church property dispute,” Wright wrote in the order.
In February, arguments centered on a federal court case called New Jerusalem. That case set a two-step test to determine if a secular court can decide on certain church matters: is the church denomination hierarchical and is the local church a member of that denomination?
Wright said in the order that both the UMC and the churches agreed the UMC is a hierarchical denomination and the local churches had joined it.
"The precedent that this Court is bound [to] follow has been established by the First District Court of Appeal in New Jerusalem,” Wright said.
In a secondary issue of venue—where a case must be tried—Wright disagreed with Gibbs. If the lawsuit were to proceed, Wright said each church would need to file a lawsuit in the district court it resides within.
Wright also denied the UMC’s request for sanctions.
The decision keeps Paragraph 2553 as the method for splitting churches to use over human sexuality disagreements. However, the window to use the paragraph is closing.
“Paragraph 2553 expires at the end of this year, meaning churches seeking to disaffiliate after that might be unable to keep their land and property,” the Florida UMC said in a post.
Read our previous coverage of the UMC lawsuit.
This story would be a lot more useful if the paper would name the local UMC churches that are preparing to leave. Continually trying to avoid offending anyone is making your paper into milquetoast.