Reflections on the Karen Dammann Trial

by Chris Elkins

“Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed, practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.” From the Book of Discipline of the UMC-2000, 304.3. This law used to prosecute Karen Dammann is an unjust law and this trial was an injustice. Soulforce had a moral responsibility to shut down this trial. If we were not there to bring attention to this injustice, we would be complicit. Jimmy Creech called the trial a hate crime intended to intimidate and keep gays and lesbians in closets of fear.

Wednesday morning about 50 Soulforce volunteers blocked the entrance and were able to delay the trial for nearly 2 hours as we were led away one by one and arrested for trespassing. After paying a $250 fine, we were released and allowed to return and observe the trial, which got underway about 4 pm following jury selection. After opening statements, we heard testimony from professors of the Old and New Testaments. Both gave their takes on the verses used to condemn homosexuals and explained United Methodism’s quadrilateral approach to interpreting the Bible: scripture, reason, tradition,and personal experience.

Thursday morning the trial started with Bishop Elias Galvan, the person who filed the charges against Karen and the church’s only witness. The rest of the day we heard powerful and moving testimony from 10 more witnesses called in Karen’s defense. The jury was warned about using a legalistic approach to the Book of Discipline while violating the larger spirit of the Discipline—inclusiveness and justice. The Discipline states, “Homosexual persons no less then heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth….Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and civil liberties for homosexual persons…” The church was guilty of talking the talk and not walking the walk.

That afternoon many felt that the case against Karen should be dismissed after hearing testimony of retired Bishop Jack Tuell, an expert in church law. Bishop Tuell stated that the charges were based on the Social Principles in the Discipline and were meant to be instructive. They did not carry the force of law. It was also noted that the law was vague and unenforceable because it not specify which “practices” of homosexuality were incompatible with Christian teaching. It was the same as saying the practice of heterosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Many of the witnesses drew parallels to the struggle for racial and gender equality in the church. Rev. Gilbert Caldwell told of his painful experience as a black minister and the fear of integration in the church. He testified that at one time blacks and women were considered incompatible with Christian teaching. Just as we look back at racism and see how inhuman we were, so will we look back on our treatment of lesbians and gays. The jury also heard moving testimony about the harmful effects of the closet and the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the Methodist Church. By coming out, gays and lesbians are claiming their sacred worth.

Friday morning we heard one more witness in Karen’s defense and then closing arguments. The church told the jury that it must enforce the law and not establish new law. That was the work of the upcoming General Conference. Karen’s team asked the jury to be true to the spirit of the Discipline and not focus on the narrow understanding of one law. He reminded them that the God of Love is also the God of justice and that justice delayed prolongs suffering and gives some an excuse to hate. The jury deliberated until 7 pm on Friday and resumed deliberation Saturday morning. I spent about an hour at the church Saturday morning hoping for a decision before catching a noon flight back home to Virginia.

There had been no word when we left at 10 am but my feeling was that the jury understood this opportunity to make a historic and courageous stand for justice, equality, and inclusion. They had heard powerful testimony leading the church to do a new thing for lesbians and gays. We awoke Sunday morning to the news that Karen had been acquitted. We awoke to a new hope for healing and reconciliation. Let’s hope that this spirit carries over to the General Conference in Pittsburg, April 27-May 7. It is the church’s practice of exclusion and the condemnation of homosexuality that is incompatible with Christian teaching.