In Courtroom 1 of the Bradford County Courthouse, Attorney David Gibbs III declined to read the full list of plaintiffs in his lawsuit—more than 70 churches across Florida.
From Garden City to Greensboro, Alachua to Keystone Heights, the churches joined the lawsuit against their governing organization and members of it, the Board of Trustees of the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC).
More than 100 church representatives gathered at the courthouse on Tuesday to hear arguments on a series of motions the UMC filed. The crowd filled the hall outside the courtroom, and court services shuffled courtrooms to give the hearing more space. Even so, many attendees had to wait outside and watch via Zoom along with compatriots across the state.
The UMC motions sought to dismiss the case, to delay discovery (the request for information or documents by the Churches' to UMC), and to sanction the plaintiffs. After the arguments, Judge George Wright said he would reserve judgment on all three motions until later in order to consider the case.
The lawsuit is the latest chapter in the national debate within the United Methodist Church over same-sex marriage. Hundreds of conservative denominations have moved to either become independent or affiliate with the new Global Methodist Church—opening a secondary debate regarding ownership of church properties.
The UMC provides multiple ways to leave the organization, but Gibbs said the UMC has held his clients, the 70 churches, in handcuffs and is holding their properties as ransom. He compared the situation to an abusive pre-nuptial.
Meanwhile, attorney Gregory Hearing for the UMC said the churches’ lawsuit represents a frontal attack on the structure of the UMC and called the matter an intra-church dispute.
Most of Tuesday’s arguments involved technical elements concerning the UMC’s motion to dismiss and whether or not the court system can even handle the case.
Hearing told Wright that the civil court has no authority over ecclesiastical matters—issues relating to church doctrine and governance. He said doctrinal matters litter the churches’ lawsuit, proving the ecclesiastical nature of the argument and exempting the courts.
Wright and Hearing both referred to a test given from a previous court case called New Jerusalem: is the church organization ecclesiastical and is the local church a member of it? A ‘yes’ to both questions means judges are prevented from ruling, according to Wright and Hearing.
“The way that I understand the New Jerusalem case is that if you voluntarily submit yourself and affiliate with a hierarchical church, you essentially consent to the laws that you're going to be governed by within the religious organization,” Wright said.
Hearing said Wright cannot settle the property issue in the lawsuit without hitting doctrinal issues and running into Florida's Ecclesiastical Abstention rules. Hearing noted the Florida Supreme Court has twice upheld this rule.
However, Gibbs denied that the lawsuit contained doctrinal issues and said the judge can settle the dispute without cracking open a Bible or ruling on ecclesiastical matters. He said it’s the same as any property dispute under Florida’s trust laws.
“We're at a tremendously premature point to make the factual determinations that this case cannot be heard on secular principles,” Gibbs added.
He said the matter would crystalize if discovery moves forward—an action the UMC has motioned against.
Gibbs said the UMC is punishing the churches for leaving and forcing the congregations to pay for property they’ve already bought and doesn’t contain the UMC in the deeds.
He noted that the UMC never helped pay for the land, buildings or upkeep. He pointed to Grace UMC in Lawtey that bought its property in 1885, more than 80 years before the United Methodist Church association began.
Gibbs said the churches understood the deeding as a failsafe in case a church closed. Florida law requires charities to deed their property to another institution in case of closure.
But the churches don’t want to close, Gibbs said, just leave the UMC.
The UMC has allowed churches to amicably leave for decades under established rules in the organization’s Book of Discipline. But how a church leaves has always had latitude. Gibbs said the UMC is choosing to money grab instead of letting them go peacefully.
"The [UMC] has taken the position that it is entitled to keep the Grace UMC Property—which was owned and paid for by Grace UMC long before the UMC and the Annual Conference ever existed—unless Grace UMC pays a substantial payment of money as unilaterally determined by the UMC,” the lawsuit says.
Gibbs said the lawsuit brings all the parties to one court. But if the lawsuit is dismissed, the case could result in dozens of separate lawsuits across the state as the UMC and local churches debate who owns the buildings and land.
The UMC should of seen this situation coming when they (UMC) decided to become worldly and not follow the bible teachings.
To me, a UMC lay pastor,the UMC is not a religious organization. Not once have I been asked how many souls have been won for the kingdom. Although it has continued to ask how many non binary people are in the church. My church voted 39-10 to leave. The district superintendent then terminated me without following the Book of Discipline. Seems they tend to make up stuff as they go along, including about Jesus. I preach Jesus Christ, the son of God who was crucified dead and buried for my sins and arose and now sits at the right hand of the Father. That he will return and judge those living and dead. Some are hell bound and hell is a real place
No truer words Lay Pastor!!!
How long have you been supported by our United Methodist Church which licensed you to preach the word in a UMC sanctuary?