United Methodist News Service Questions and Answers about the trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann

Wednesday, March 3, 2004
Karen Dammann Trial: Questions and Answers
By United Methodist News Service

On March 17, the Rev. Karen Dammann of Ellensburg, Wash., will undergo a United Methodist clergy trial to respond to a charge that she has violated church law by stating that she is living in a homosexual relationship. UMNS will cover the trial, and updates will be posted online at http://umns.umc.org.

What is a church trial?

In a United Methodist church trial, an individual responds to a charge or charges of having violated denominational law, as set forth in the Book of Discipline.

A trial is described as a "last resort" in the Book of Discipline. When a complaint is filed against someone, the matter is first addressed in a supervisory process and usually resolved. If resolution doesn’t occur, the complaint may be forwarded to the conference committee on investigation, which conducts hearings and decides whether grounds exist for converting the complaint to a charge for trial.

The conference bishop designates another bishop to preside over the trial, and a jury or "trial court" of 13 clergy members from the respondent’s annual conference – in this case, the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference – hears the case. Nine votes are necessary to convict.

Why is Dammann on trial?

She is charged with "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings." A complaint was filed against Dammann after she informed her bishop in February 2001 that she was "living in a partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship." United Methodist law forbids the appointment of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals."

Dammann, a clergy member in full connection since 1994, had already been serving United Methodist congregations and was on family leave at the time. She made the disclosure in a letter to Bishop Elias Galvan, stating that she wanted to return from leave and receive a local church appointment.

What is the denomination’s official policy on homosexuality?

The United Methodist Church, in its Book of Discipline, states that homosexuals are people of sacred worth. However, it regards the practice of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teachings. The church forbids the ordination and appointment of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." It also forbids the celebration of same-sex unions by its clergy and in its sanctuaries.

More information on the church’s policy, along with a history of its struggle over issues related to homosexuality, is available athttp://umns.umc.org.

Where is Dammann now?

Effective March 1, Bishop Galvan placed Dammann on family leave at her request. She had been serving First United Methodist Church of Ellensburg, Wash., since July 1.

Who made the complaint against Dammann?

Bishop Galvan filed the initial complaint in 2001, at the direction of the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination’s supreme court. For more than two years that followed, the complaint wound its way through the denomination’s judicial processes.

When the Judicial Council heard the case for a second time in October 2003, it reversed the decisions of two lower-ranking church bodies, the Western Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals and the Pacific Northwest Conference Committee on Investigation. In split votes, both committees had supported the dismissal of charges against Dammann.

The Judicial Council said both committees had committed "an egregious error of church law" by refusing to apply the Book of Discipline and the council’s earlier decisions to the case. The court ordered the jurisdictional appeals committee to send the case back to the conference committee on investigation for a new hearing. The Judicial Council also said it was retaining jurisdiction of the matter. After further hearings, the committee on investigation voted 5-2 on Jan. 12 that grounds existed for a church trial.

When and where will the trial be held?

The trial will begin March 17. It will be in the fellowship hall of Bothell United Methodist Church at 18515 92nd N.E. in Bothell, Wash., near Seattle.

Jury selection will begin at 9:30 a.m. and will be closed to the public. Reporters and other observers will be admitted after the trial court has been chosen, but not before 1 p.m.

The court is expected to be in session from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day, with a lunch break from noon until 1:30 p.m. If the trial runs into the weekend, the court will recess at noon Saturday, March 20, and resume at 9 a.m. Monday, March 22.

Who will preside over the trial?

Bishop William Boyd Grove of Charleston, W.Va., will preside. Grove was elected in 1980 and served the denomination’s West Virginia and Albany, N.Y., areas before retiring in 1996.

Grove presided over the 1999 clergy trial of Jimmy Creech, who was charged with violating church law by officiating at same-sex union services. Creech, who had already undergone a clergy trial in 1998 for similar charges, was found guilty in 1999 and lost his ministerial orders.

How are members of the trial court – jurors – chosen?

The 13 members and two alternates will be chosen from a pool of Pacific Northwest clergy. The Book of Discipline specifies that at least 35 pastors must be named to the jury pool. The bishop’s cabinet-the district superintendents-chooses the names for the pool. Special consideration is given to ensuring that the pool is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and gender. The counsel for each side has up to four peremptory challenges, as well as unlimited challenges for cause. The alternates will sit as observers and will be prepared to serve if one or two of the original jurors is unable to.

Will the trial be open to the news media and spectators?

Yes. United Methodist Church law provides for open court proceedings at the request of the respondent. However, seating will be limited. No cameras or audio or video recording equipment will be allowed in the courtroom.

What happens if Dammann is found guilty? Not guilty?

With a guilty verdict, the trial court would have a range of penalties to consider, including the removal of ministerial orders or a "lesser penalty." While at least nine votes are needed to convict, seven votes by the trial court are necessary to set the penalty. If she is found not guilty and decides to return to active ministry, she would need to request a change of status according to procedures in the Book of Discipline.

Does a precedent exist for an openly gay United Methodist clergyperson standing trial?

Yes. In 1987, Rose Mary Denman of New Hampshire underwent a trial after declaring that she was a lesbian. She lost her clergy credentials as a result. Unless the respondent requests an open trial, clergy trials are confidential and private proceedings and might never become public knowledge.

How can I get press credentials to the Dammann trial?

For credentials, contact Stephen Drachler, director of public information, United Methodist Communications, at sdrachler@umcom.org. Drachler also will be on site and available to help news media. He can be reached at (615) 456-4710 (cell) or (615) 742-5411 (office).

Who are the principal spokespeople?

For the annual conference: The Rev. Elaine Stanovsky, (206) 728-7462 or (425) 750-7257. E-mail: trialinfo@pnwumc.org.

For Dammann: Lindsay Thompson, a Seattle attorney, (206) 285-4130 or (206) 618-5466. E-mail: tradelaw@thompson-law.com.

How will United Methodist News Service cover the trial?

Covering the trial for UMNS will be writers Lynne DeMichele and Kim Riemland. Seattle-area photographer Les Fetchko will shoot the event. Updates will be posted during the proceedings at http://umns.umc.org, and a wrap-up story or stories will be posted when the trial ends.

News media contact: Tim Tanton 欠 (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org