Methodists try minister for lesbian relationship; she calls trial potential turning point
A minister being tried by the United Methodist Church for being a lesbian said Thursday that her case could be a turning point for the church.
As she entered a church in this Seattle suburb for the start of the second day of her trial, the Rev. Karen Dammann said she feels no animosity toward her church or her jury of fellow pastors, who will determine whether she should continue her ministry.
“I don’t take it personally. It’s the process winding its way to a conclusion,” she said.
Although that process has been exhausting, she said she was glad the trial finally was under way. Dammann disclosed that she was in a homosexual relationship three years ago.
“I feel hopeful,” said Dammann, who has pleaded innocent. “It’s possible that this will be a prophetic moment for the church.”
On Wednesday, the first day of her trial, dozens of her supporters were arrested as they tried to block the proceedings.
Dammann, 47, is charged with “practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible to Christian teachings.” Church law prohibits ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals, although the church’s social principles support rights and liberties for homosexuals.
She is on leave as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg, 95 miles east of Seattle. Last week she married her partner of nine years, Meredith Savage, in Portland, Ore., where officials began allowing gay marriages earlier this month. The couple have a 5-year-old son.
One of her first witnesses Wednesday was Mary Ann Tolbert, a professor of biblical studies at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., and executive director of its Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies.
Tolbert said the church is inconsistent in how it applies its Book of Discipline. At one time, for example, divorce was not allowed, but the church has since changed its stance, she said.
“It seems to me that, with all due respect, you are acting as a hypocrite,” she said.
Tolbert reminded the jurors that Jesus was killed because he disagreed with the religious norms of his time.
“We have to be very careful, you have to be very careful, that you don’t replicate the crucifixion of Jesus in what you do,” she said.
In an opening statement, Dammann’s church counsel, the Rev. Bob Ward, compared the struggle of gays and lesbians with the struggle that women and minorities had in gaining rights.
The difference, he said, is that “with gays and lesbians, they are encouraged to hide, as we have adopted a policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.”‘
“Karen has chosen not to live the lie,” Ward said.
But the Rev. James Finkbeiner, representing the church, called on the jury to find Dammann guilty of the charge of being a self-avowed, practicing homosexual. He told jurors that because Dammann disclosed her homosexuality to the bishop as well as to the entire church, that is all the proof needed to find her guilty.
“It is not the law of the church that is on trial here,” Finkbeiner said.
United Methodist officials have said the trial is the first against a homosexual pastor in the denomination since 1987, when the credentials of the Rev. Rose Mary Denman of New Hampshire were revoked.
Nine votes from the 13-pastor jury are needed for conviction, which would be followed by a decision by the same jury on a penalty that could include loss of ministry. If Dammann is acquitted, she would be considered in good standing and be available for new assignments.
About 100 people protested loudly Wednesday morning outside Bothell United Methodist Church, and many tried to block church officials from entering the building. Police arrested 33 when they refused to move.