A panel of the United Methodist Church (UMC) has overturned a decision to defrock Rev. Frank Schaefer, a pastor who was stripped of his ministerial credentials last year after he officiated the marriage of his gay son.
Today’s decision reverses a 2013 ruling, when Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor from Central Pennsylvania, made headlines after the UMC, which does not formally endorse marriage equality, defrocked him for officiating his son’s marriage to another man six years prior. The new ruling fully reinstates Schaefer, complete with back-pay and benefits.
“I can’t even begin to describe how meaningful this ‘refrocking’ is to me,” Schaefer said in a statement. “I never did understand the severity of my punishment for an act of love for my son Tim. The committee of appeals understood that my defrocking sought to penalize me not for what I did but for what I might do in the future.”
“But more importantly, today’s decision by the committee is a hopeful sign for our LGBTQ community. They recognized that I was wrongfully punished for standing with those who are discriminated against.”
Many Methodists have rallied behind Schaefer since he was admonished by the church last year. After his case was brought to the courts, two bishops voiced support for his actions, and more than 50 United Methodist pastors from Eastern Pennsylvania jointly officiated a same-sex marriage in solidarity with his pro-LGBT stance. Some UMC bishops have also started outright refusing to take up trials against Methodist ministers who perform gay weddings.
The panel’s decision can be appealed to the church’s Judicial Council, but as the church continues to push towards LGBT inclusion and away from trying pro-LGBT pastors, it remains to be seen whether anyone will bring the case back up.
The official ruling of the Methodist court has now been released, clarifying the reasoning behind their decision. According to the document, Schaefer’s “refrocking” is an attempt to correct two “errors of Church law”: 1) his initial penalty was inappropriate because it was “mixing and matching” punishments that are meant to be distinct, and 2) the earlier punishment preemptively penalized Schaefer for things he might do in the future (e.g., perform another same-sex marriage), which church court precedent prohibits.