A United Methodist Church appeals panel has overturned a decision to defrock a Pennsylvania pastor who performed a same-sex marriage ceremony for his son.
The nine-person panel ordered the church to restore Frank Schaefer's pastoral credentials, saying the jury that convicted him last year erred when fashioning his punishment. He was then transferred to the California conference of the church, effective July 1.
"I feel like dancing today,” Schaefer said from the First United Methodist Church in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood. “And I feel like rejoicing, because this is a big day.” Schaefer will get back pay and his credentials restored.
He was suspended by the church last year for officiating his son’s wedding back in 2007.
The church’s reasoning for defrocking Schaefer was that he wouldn’t promise to refrain from ever presiding over another same-sex ceremony.
"I will not refuse ministry to anybody,” he said. "So if the question is asked, 'Pastor Frank will you perform gay weddings again?' the answer is, 'Absolutely,' …the church is for all of God’s beloved children.”
In Schaefer’s appeal, he argued the church's decision was based on an assumption that he would break church law in the future. In his eyes, the decision was invalid.
“I feel very good that they made a solid case that will probably stand,” the pastor said. “Even to the scrutiny of the judicial council.”
Schaefer considers the ruling a big day for both the church and the LGBTQ community.
At his request, Schaefer accepted a transfer to the California-Pacific Annual Conference, said Bishop Minerva G. Carcano, who said he would appoint the pastor to the Isla Vista Student Ministry in Santa Barbara.
The issue of gay marriage has long roiled the United Methodist Church, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination. Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church policies that allow gay members but ban "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from becoming clergy and forbid ministers from performing same-sex marriages.
Traditionalists say clergy have no right to break church law just because they disagree with it. Some conservative pastors are calling for a breakup of the denomination, which has 12 million members worldwide, saying the split over gay marriage is irreconcilable.
Schaefer said Tuesday's decision "signals a major change within the United Methodist Church, for sure."
"There will be change,” he said. “The church is changing, and that is good news for everybody… our movement is growing by leaps and bounds, and we’re unstoppable. This will lead to change."
The appeals panel, however, suggested it was not making a broader statement about the church's position on homosexuality but based its decision solely on the facts of Schaefer's case.
The jury's punishment was illegal under church law, the appeals panel concluded, writing in its decision that "revoking his credentials cannot be squared with the well-established principle that our clergy can only be punished for what they have been convicted of doing in the past, not for what they may or may not do in the future."
The decision also noted that Schaefer's son had asked him to perform the wedding; that the ceremony was small and private, held not in a Methodist church but in a Massachusetts restaurant; and that Schaefer did not publicize the wedding until a member of his congregation learned of it and filed the complaint in April 2013.