Update on Emergency Injunction

Dear Friends in Christ,
I received word this afternoon at 3:15 (November 10, 2023) from our Church Leaders that Judge Brooke E Reid, Circuit Judge in Montgomery County, Alabama has reached a decision following a hearing which was held Wednesday, November 8th.  The hearing dealt with a group of 41 United Methodist Churches in our Conference which joined an injunction led by the National Center for Life and Liberty.
The injunction before Judge Reid was denied.
The purpose of the injunction as I understand it was to intervene in our Annual Conference’s process regarding church disaffiliation under paragraph 2553 of the UMC Book of Discipline.  I understood the goal being to allow Shalimar Church and others to be allowed to hold Church Conferences, as set forth in The Discipline, in order for our Church members to vote about whether they desired to remain United Methodist or depart from the denomination.
Our Leaders were previously notified by our District Superintendent that the Conference Board of Trustees did not support a vote due to Shalimar’s “reasons of conscience” not being eligible in accordance with paragraph 2553.  In addition, the CBOT determined that the mission of the UMC would be negatively impacted if Shalimar Church were allowed to disaffiliate from the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference.  Our Church Council then voted unanimously to join with other churches of the Annual Conference and work through the NCLL to gain reconsideration of the CBOT’s decision.
I want each of you to know that Leaders of our Church have informed me that the process in which Shalimar Church is engaged with 41 fellow Churches through the NCLL already prepared for an appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, in the event this initial hearing was denied.
So that all of our Church Family can be fully informed, I am including the Order issued today by Judge Reid. It follows:
     This matter came before the Court on November 8, 2023 for Hearing on Plaintiffs’ Motion for Temporary Restraining Order. The above-styled matter arises out of a dispute concerning whether the United Methodist Church (“UMC”) improperly denied respective Plaintiff churches the right to hold a vote on whether to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church due to matters of conscience as provided for by paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline, UMC’s governing document. Specifically, the Plaintiffs seek an Order from this Court requiring UMC to allow Plaintiff churches to hold a vote on whether to disaffiliate under paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline prior to the current deadline established by UMC to approve and ratify any disaffiliation agreement. By its own terms, paragraph 2553 expires on December 31, 2023. The Plaintiffs contend that 2553 provides the only path for churches to disaffiliate over matters of conscience while allowing them to retain their property on certain terms. Plaintiffs aver that they followed UMC procedure set forth in 2553 for churches wishing to hold a vote on disaffiliation by submitting a qualifying eligibility statement and otherwise meeting the requirements to hold a vote. UMC issued a response to Plaintiffs’ eligibility submission rejecting their requests to hold a vote regarding disaffiliation under 2553.
       The Defendants, including the Alabama West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, Inc., Bishop David Graves, and District Superintendents Debora Bishop, Mike Pearson, Jeff Wilson, and Jean Tippit, assert that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because the nature of the relief requested by Plaintiffs in their Motion for TRO is ecclesiastical in nature and would require Court interference in matters of church autonomy. In support of this position, Defendants cite two decisions released within the past month by the Supreme Court of Oklahoma. Specifically, in The Oklahoma Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Inc. et. al. v. United Methodist Church of the Servant, et. al., 2023 WL 6984960, 2023 OK 102 (2023), the Supreme Court of Oklahoma reversed the decision of a lower court to grant injunctive relief to a church seeking to hold a church conference vote on disaffiliation on the basis the church’s claims were inextricably intertwined with church doctrine and that church autonomy applied. Specifically, the Court noted, “to decide the merits of Church of the Servant’s claims, courts must interpret the Book of Discipline and Paragraph 2553---an ecclesiastical issue.” Id.
       In Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese for U.S. of Am. & Canada v. Milivojevich, 429 U.S. 873 (1976), the United States Supreme Court noted: “...the First Amendment severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving church property disputes...First Amendment values are plainly jeopardized when church property litigation is made turn on the resolution by civil courts of controversies over religious doctrine and practice.”
       This Court recognizes the earnest desire of Plaintiff churches to hold a vote on whether to disaffiliate from UMC based upon matters of conscience that are in essence deeply held religious beliefs. While the testimony presented by Plaintiffs’ witnesses during the TRO hearing was limited to their request for emergency relief (namely, the right to vote pursuant to paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline prior to the end of year deadline), this Court found that testimony to be extremely compelling. Indeed, the testimony and evidence presented gives rise to questions concerning fair and equitable application of a rule found within the governing document of a Christian institution. UMC instituted paragraph 2553 providing the terms by which churches could disaffiliate and subsequently changed those terms effectively barring Plaintiff churches from the same opportunity provided to the many churches who were allowed to disaffiliate under the original provision enacted by UMC. To implement a rule upon which Plaintiff churches relied and subsequently modify the rule to bar Plaintiff churches from exercising a voting right specifically created by UMC seems at a minimum inequitable. Members of the Plaintiff churches who testified raise valid concerns regarding disparate treatment and the right of church denominations that have funded their own buildings, ministries, and staff salaries, to separate from UMC based upon sincerely held religious beliefs in conflict with church doctrine, policy, and/or practice.
       Despite the foregoing, existing case law holds that this Court is without jurisdiction to rule on such issues because the relief sought by Plaintiffs would require the Court to interpret a provision of the Book of Discipline intertwined with church doctrine. While this Court is of the opinion Plaintiff churches, based upon the evidence and testimony presented, should have the right to vote on disaffiliation, a right created by UMC as a pathway to exit, the Court cannot reach the merits of the issue because to do so would require Court interpretation of 2553 as it applies to eligibility criteria based upon ecclesiastical matters.
       Recognizing that the relief the Plaintiffs seek is of an emergency nature, this Court undertook to issue a swift ruling that would afford the Plaintiffs the opportunity to appeal this decision on an emergency basis to the Supreme Court of Alabama. Accordingly, the Plaintiffs’ Motion for Temporary Restraining Order is denied and this case dismissed on the basis the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. This represents a final order from which an appeal lies as all claims have hereby been adjudicated. This Court remains hopeful that the Supreme Court of Alabama will take up this issue on an emergency basis.
Done this 10th day of November, 2023.
                                                                         /s/  BROOKE E REID, CIRCUIT JUDGE

Please hear my heart as your pastor…. You and I still comprise the Body of Christ, the Church in Shalimar as we have for 72 years. Together, we still have our purpose to bring people (including each other) to both know the love of Jesus Christ and experience His love.  THIS HAS NOT CHANGED and is in no way limited or affected by the news of this Order issued today.  As long as I remain your appointed pastoral leader, our purpose will not change.
My deep, deep desire and fervent prayer for each of us in our Church Family to stay lazer-focused on this purpose, stay One and unified in Jesus’ love for each other, and especially for the persons we have not yet reached in this community.  Please don’t make any change in your commitment to Jesus Christ through the ministry of Shalimar Church because of something that happens outside of our Body.
This Sunday at Shalimar Church, in each of our morning services, we are praising God for our wonderful Veterans, honoring them for their incredible sacrifices and service, and practicing, as the Church of Jesus Christ, the Freedom our Veterans have made possible for us. Set aside this distraction and let us run the race set before us, looking to Jesus (Hebrews 12).
In the Love of Jesus With You,
Dr. Alan W. McBride, Lead Pastor
Shalimar United Methodist Church

Ben Savage

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