by David Sisler

Question: What does the United Methodist Church have in common with the Boy Scouts of America?

Answer: Both groups are facing serious, and permanent changes to their existence over the issue of homosexuality.

As reported by The Washington Post, a case is now awaiting a decision from the Washington D.C. Human Rights Commission in which two men charge that the Boy Scouts' refusal to accept them as volunteers violates the D.C. Human Rights Act, which bars, among other things, discrimination in "places of public accommodation" on the basis of sexual orientation. The Boy Scouts counter that they are a private group and, as such, have a First Amendment right to exclude anyone who is not willing or able to abide by their core beliefs, one of which is that homosexuality is immoral.

This is not the only case involving BSA.

In New Jersey, a state appeals court ruled in March that the Boy Scouts' policy of excluding homosexuals violated a state anti-discrimination law. A California appeals court, on the other hand, found that the Boy Scouts were not covered by state anti-discrimination law which regulates "business establishments." In Chicago, where the ACLU sued the city for sponsoring Boy Scout activities that excluded homosexuals, the city dropped its sponsorship of 28 local scout troops. In another Chicago case, the city Commission on Human Relations sided with a man who sued the Boy Scouts for rejecting him for employment because of his homosexuality.

Supreme Court rulings have stated that institutions such as BSA may discriminate if they are indeed, private organizations, or if their exclusionary policies articulate intrinsic core beliefs.

For Scouts, the policy of excluding homosexuals is a core belief dating from 1910 when the first American scout troop was chartered. Every Boy Scout pledges on his honor that he will keep himself "morally straight." The basic understanding of that phrase was so clear that it was only in 1991 that a BSA policy defined the exclusion of "known" or "avowed" homosexuals.

Every four years since 1972, the quadrennial General Conference, the ruling body of Methodism, has stated that as a church "United Methodists affirm homosexuals as people of sacred worth, but find the homosexual lifestyle incompatible with Christian teachings."

On March 13, a church jury in Nebraska acknowledged Pastor Jimmy Creech of 1,900-member First UMC in Omaha had performed a "covenant" or union ceremony for two lesbians. Their deliberations fell one vote short of pronouncing him guilty of disobeying the church's Book of Discipline, which, in 1996, banned such unions by Methodist clergy.

Then on April 30, the UMC's Council of Bishops, unanimously issued a pastoral letter saying the bishops are "committed to uphold" the church's positions on homosexuality and homosexual unions. The letter repeated the church's declaration that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching"; homosexual union ceremonies "shall not be conducted by [UMC] ministers and shall not be conducted in [UMC] churches"; and "self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve" in the UMC.

Two weeks later Bishop Melvin Talbert of the California-Nevada conference, issued a letter which effectively disavowed the April 30th document.

By early July almost 400 UMC clergy had signed a statement expressing their intention not to be bound by the bishops' letter.

The latest event started yesterday when the UMC's Judicial Council began a two-day special session in Dallas. The Council is slated to rule on a request as to whether a violation of the homosexual-union ban in the Book of Discipline constitutes a chargeable offense under church law.

"We respect other people and other people's beliefs," says Boy Scouts national spokesman Gregg Shields. "We simply ask everyone to respect our rights to hold our own beliefs." Many in United Methodist Church are asking for the same thing that the biblical, historic position of the denomination regarding the practice of homosexuality be followed. The two-day deliberations of the Judicial Council end today, but when its ruling is announced, will the word "United" still apply to the denomination?

In all of these church actions, the deliberations are directed at clergy who dishonor their ordination by violating biblical teachings and church directives; they are not, as some homosexual right activists proclaim, "witch hunts." The Episcopal Church faces schism, over the same issue, and both the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the American Baptist Church U.S.A. have put off further debate until the year 2000 for cooling off purposes.

Six weeks ago the nearly-300 members of the Kingsburg (CA) United Methodist Church voted unanimously to disassociate themselves from the general church. In his message that day Pastor Ed Ezaki quoted Methodist founder John Wesley's sermon on schism: In churches where ungodliness and apostasy prevail, the evil of schism rests on those who make it impossible to stay.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 8/8/98

Copyright 1998 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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