A significant dispute within the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference is escalating as the regional body has appealed a local court’s ruling requiring the conference to organize a special dissafiliation meeting to review the dissafiliation request of an Oklahoma City church, claiming a violation of the First Amendment.
This development in Oklahoma unfolds in the context of a larger schism within the global United Methodist Church, which has been dealing with deep divisions over issues such as same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy.
At the heart of this specific conflict is a ruling by Oklahoma County District Court Judge Aletia Timmons earlier this month. She ordered the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference leaders to redo a special disaffiliation meeting held in April. The reasoning for her decision was a perceived failure by the conference leaders to give First United Methodist Church of Oklahoma City an adequate opportunity to ratify its disaffiliation request formally.
The appeal filed by the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference challenges the jurisdiction of secular courts in religious matters, asserting that Judge Timmons’ decision amounts to interference in internal church affairs, The Oklahoman reported.
“The ruling blatantly interferes with an internal church process protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” the leaders of the regional conference said in a statement.
Judge Timmons, on her part, defended her ruling by arguing it was grounded in “neutral legal principles” pertaining to a property dispute, rather than intruding on ecclesiastical autonomy.
While the appeal to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma is pending, the conference leaders have also filed a request for a stay of Timmons’ order. A decision on this stay is expected on Monday.
The Oklahoma Conference in April held a special conference in which they voted to approve the disaffiliations of 55 congregations that had been part of the UMC regional body. Oklahoma Bishop James G. Nunn said in a statement emailed to The Christian Post at the time that he recognized “how painful and emotional these decisions are for all involved.”
“I am comforted that the process for today’s vote was carried out according to the requirements identified in our denomination and conference disaffiliation agreements,” stated Nunn.
First UMC of Downtown Oklahoma City was not allowed to proceed with the disaffiliation process, with members believing that the conference was acting unfairly.
On June 1, First UMC announced filing a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Conference, with Patton saying that his church had “exhausted every other avenue.”
“At least 75% of our congregation expressed a desire to disaffiliate, which is well above the 66% threshold, so we expected a relatively seamless transition,” said Patton at the time. “Unfortunately, leaders within our governing body have unfairly impeded our departure by deliberately ignoring their own rules and procedures. We allege their motive is greed.”
The battle in Oklahoma is far from isolated, mirroring similar disputes within the global UMC. In 2019, the General Conference of the denomination approved a provision that allowed for a “gracious exit” for churches wishing to sever ties due to disagreements over “human sexuality.”
A staggering 84 churches in the state have already disaffiliated since the beginning of 2022, according to data from the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference. Across the United States, thousands of other churches have left the UMC.
Although the UMC Book of Discipline prohibits both practices, many progressive leaders within the denomination have refused to follow or enforce the rules.
This has led large numbers of conservatives to leave the UMC, with many departing congregations affiliating with the recently created Global Methodist Church.
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