186 Georgia UMC Congregations Sue Regional Conference for Blocking Their Exit
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More than 180 United Methodist churches in Georgia who want to leave the denomination with their church property, have filed a lawsuit against the North Georgia Conference and its leaders who made the decision late last year to temporarily suspend the denomination's disaffiliation process due to what they called "defamatory" misinformation.
UM News reports the lawsuit filed by 186 churches on March 30 in Cobb County Superior Court in Marietta, Georgia, involves more than a quarter of the North Georgia Conference's nearly 700 congregations.
It's also the largest number of congregations that so far have banded together in a single lawsuit against a regional body of the United Methodist Church (UMC) as liberal policies and LGBT issues continue to splinter the UMC, the second-largest denomination in the U.S.
As CBN News reported in November, the UMC is accelerating its moves to become more accepting of LGBTQ lifestyles, despite biblical prohibitions, leading to more divisions within the denomination and more departures from the group.
CBN News also reported last December that North Georgia Conference leaders announced they would temporarily block member churches from leaving the denomination due to the spread of "intentionally deployed" misinformation about the United Methodist Church, its leaders, and its disaffiliation procedure.
In an email, the conference announced a "pause" in the disaffiliation process.
Conference leaders said they would revisit the disaffiliation process after the next General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking assembly scheduled for April 23-May 3, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
However, that decision by the defendants, the 120-page lawsuit claims, went "beyond the limits on their powers, have conspired to deprive Plaintiffs of their valuable property rights."
The group of churches has asked for a trial by jury, a restoration of the disaffiliation procedure, all of their property, compensatory damages as well as attorney fees and expenses.
The North Georgia Conference faces a similar lawsuit filed on Feb. 22 in Columbia County Superior Court by Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church in Augusta, Georgia, according to UM News.
The outlet reported the underlying issue is The United Methodist Church's trust clause, which states that all church property is held in trust for the entire denomination. Methodism's founder John Wesley instituted the church's first trust clause, which The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have maintained since the 18th century.
According to The UMC Book of Discipline paragraph 2553, any "decision to disaffiliate" from the mainline denomination "must be approved by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference."
The church law is set to expire at year's end — months before the coming General Conference, UM News reported.
The outlet reported U.S. annual conferences have already approved the withdrawal of 2,095 congregations since the church law took effect four years ago. That total represents about 7% of the U.S. United Methodist churches include 71 church disaffiliations that the North Georgia Annual Conference approved in June last year.
In a statement, North Georgia Conference Bishop Robin Dease, said her "heart aches" about the lawsuit.
She said conference leaders worked diligently to develop, update, and implement a disaffiliation process that would fulfill the requirements of the Book of Discipline.
"However, the cabinet discovered and observed that many local churches have been misled about the disaffiliation process and have been presented with information about the process, and about The United Methodist Church and its leadership, that is factually incorrect and defamatory," Dease said. "We have significant concerns about this misinformation and are well aware that it has the potential to do irreparable harm."
The "information presented to members of local churches about disaffiliation has been outside the bounds of normal and acceptable civil discourse. It has not only been false and misleading but has been antithetical to the concept of a gracious exit or a commitment to honoring the mission and ministry of all Christians," she said.
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