(RNS) — More than 100 churches are suing the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to immediately disaffiliate from the denomination.
The lawsuit comes amid a slow-moving schism in the United Methodist Church largely over the ordination and marriage of its LGBTQ members.
And, according to the head of a new, theologically conservative Methodist denomination that recently split from the United Methodist Church, it likely won’t be the last.
“Florida is the first of what I would anticipate might be a number of similar lawsuits occurring,” said Keith Boyette, transitional connectional coordinating officer of the conservative Global Methodist Church.
In the lawsuit — filed Thursday (July 14) in Bradford County, Florida, by the National Center for Life and Liberty — 106 churches allege the requirements for disaffiliation approved by a special session of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference are “onerous, and in many cases, prohibitive.”
That disaffiliation plan allows churches wishing to leave the denomination over its stance on sexuality to take their properties with them through 2023 after paying apportionments and pension liabilities. It was added to the Book of Discipline by General Conference delegates in 2019 alongside legislation called the Traditional Plan that strengthened the denomination’s language barring the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ United Methodists.
The annual conference is using the disaffiliation plan and the denomination’s trust clause to “hold for ransom Plaintiff Churches’ real and personal property,” according to the suit, when previously existing provisions in the Book of Discipline allow churches to simply deed their properties to other evangelical denominations.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit alleges the Council of Bishops and its past president — Bishop Ken Carter, who heads both the Florida and Western North Carolina conferences — are not abiding by the same Book of Discipline. Among other things, it said they did nothing as the California-Nevada Annual Conference elected the denomination’s first openly LGBTQ bishop, the Illinois Great Rivers Conference certified its first drag queen as a candidate for ministry and the Western Jurisdiction declared itself a “safe harbor” for LGBTQ clergy.
In a written statement in response to the lawsuit, Carter said the Florida Annual Conference was “deeply grieved by this, as we seek to be a church united in love and in mission.”
The Florida Annual Conference is committed to the “gracious exit” provided in the Book of Discipline and has tried to engage churches in that process, according to its bishop’s statement.
Leaving abruptly without making the payments required by the disaffiliation plan approved in 2019 could damage benefits and pensions for retired pastors, he wrote. Apportionments support camps, campus ministries, natural disaster responses, missions abroad and the United Methodist Children’s Home.
“We ask that, despite their haste, these groups seeking to break away live up to the responsibilities established by the General Conference in 2019, and that they not cause pain, damage or disparage other United Methodist churches, other members in their churches or other pastors, or the Conference,” Carter wrote.