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Sunday, March 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Gay minister didn't violate Methodist law, jury finds

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter

DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
"I feel very good," said the Rev. Karen Dammann, left, hearing the verdict with partner Meredith Savage. "Something extraordinary has happened," Savage said.
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In the end, the fate of the Rev. Karen Dammann, a lesbian pastor who was found not guilty yesterday of violating United Methodist Church law, appears to have hinged on a single word: "declared."

A jury of 13 fellow pastors found that while Dammann had engaged in homosexual activity, the church's Book of Discipline — a collection of the denomination's laws and teachings — does not clearly declare that such practice is incompatible with Christian teachings.

In returning the verdict yesterday afternoon at Bothell United Methodist Church, 11 jurors voted not guilty and the other two were undecided. Nine votes would have been needed for a conviction.

The Rev. James Finkbeiner, who argued the church's case in the rare public church trial, said he thought jurors were predisposed to clearing Dammann, and that the verdict was "out of bounds with the way the Discipline actually reads."

But on a personal level, he said, "I'm glad I lost."

The verdict was cheered by most people attending the trial. The Rev. Melvin Woodworth, of First United Methodist Church of Bellevue, said: "I was surprised that the verdict was as overwhelmingly positive as it was. Quite frankly, that blew me away."

The verdict is especially significant now because the denomination's General Conference, where delegates from around the world gather every four years to vote on church laws and teachings, will meet April 27 in Pittsburgh.

The church — the third-largest Christian denomination in the country — has debated homosexuality at each of its General Conferences since 1972, when it passed the statement saying homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teaching.

The church's Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, which encompasses Washington and Northern Idaho, is generally considered one of the most-liberal conferences in the denomination, its views in the minority among Methodist conferences nationally and internationally.

That's not to say everybody in the church's Northwest congregations hold the same views on homosexuality.

"I am brokenhearted" about the verdict, said the Rev. Edd Denton, pastor of Avon United Methodist Church in Mount Vernon. "I disagree with their decision."

Dammann was charged with engaging in "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teaching." Church law says that "since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals" cannot be ordained as ministers.

One juror, the Rev. Karla Fredericksen of Tukwila United Methodist Church, read a statement from the jury, saying: "The church did not present sufficient, clear and convincing evidence to sustain the charge" against Dammann.

"We searched the Discipline and did not find a declaration that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," Fredericksen said. Although the jury said it found "passages that contain the phrasing 'incompatible with Christian teaching,' we did not find that any of them constitute a declaration."

The jury's remarks were consistent with an argument made by retired Bishop Jack Tuell, who testified Thursday on Dammann's behalf.

Tuell, considered one of the nation's top experts on the Book of Discipline, said during an interview yesterday that the book used "soft words" such as "consider" and "condone," and roundabout phrasing in its statements condemning homosexuality. Those soft words, in his opinion, did not amount to a declaration.

In contrast, Tuell said, the church uses strong and clear language in its condemnation of other practices. The Book of Discipline says, for instance: "We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than from men in marriage."

"The United Methodist Church knows how to declare something incompatible," Tuell said. Its pronouncements on homosexuality, he said, are "fatally ambiguous and uncertain."

In his closing remarks to the jurors Friday, Finkbeiner had urged jurors to consider Tuell's views as opinion that had yet to be tested or fully established.

DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Dodie Haight, second from left, greets the Rev. Karen Dammann during a church service yesterday after Dammann's acquittal. Haight belongs to Dammann's congregation in Ellensburg.
Dammann's defense counsel, the Rev. Robert Ward, urged jurors in his closing argument to consider not just what the Book of Discipline says about homosexuality but what it advocates in terms of inclusiveness and justice.

Jurors appear to have done that, saying in a statement released with the verdict that, "we did find declarations that inclusiveness means openness, acceptance and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the church, the community and the world."

The 47-year-old Dammann served as pastor of Seattle's Woodland Park United Methodist Church from 1996 to 1999 and at Ellensburg United Methodist Church from July 2003 to last month.

In a 2001 letter seeking a church appointment, she disclosed to her bishop that she was in a committed lesbian relationship and wanted to minister in a church that knew that and accepted her.

Her disclosure triggered a chain of events that led to last week's trial.

Dammann said at a press conference yesterday that she was relieved that it's over. Had the jurors found her guilty, she could have appealed, though the church cannot appeal her acquittal.

"I feel very good," Dammann said. As she sat in a church service immediately following the verdict, she said, she was reminded of the words: " 'Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.' It washed over me that it was over and I was still in the kingdom. It was an overwhelming feeling."

"Something extraordinary has happened," said Dammann's partner, Meredith Savage.

The verdict prompted soft cheers through the trial room yesterday, and words of thanks during the worship service that followed.

"Thank you, Lord," one attendee said. "This is a great day in the Methodist Church."

Not everyone had the same reaction.

Denton, the Mount Vernon pastor who was unhappy with the verdict, worried earlier yesterday about "how I'm going to hold my church together. I lost about a third of my congregation over the Mark Williams incident."

Williams, an openly gay pastor and Dammann's successor at Woodland Park, declared in 2001 he was "a practicing gay man," and a complaint was lodged against him. Last year, the church dismissed the complaint after a committee deemed it had insufficient evidence to prove he was sexually active with another man.

Denton said the issue is not about homosexuality but about the authority of the Bible and the Book of Discipline. "If we are unwilling to follow our own rules, it seems to me that then anything can go. It could potentially lead to anarchy."

Woodworth, the Bellevue pastor who cheered the verdict, said he is nonetheless concerned that it will result in the General Conference seeking to tighten the wording of church laws so that "sexual minorities will be more vulnerable to removal."

Bishop Elias Galvan of the Pacific Northwest Conference acknowledged after the verdict that "the church is not of one mind" on this issue. "Members of our congregation need to know we have followed faithfully and carefully the guidelines of the Discipline."

Dammann said she would not immediately return to her position as pastor in Ellensburg, where she is on leave in order to care for her 5-year-old son, who has an undiagnosed respiratory ailment.

Galvan said if Dammann seeks an appointment in the future, "my intention is to appoint her."

Dammann supporters have started a fund at Washington Mutual Bank to raise money for Dammann's family, which has had to deal with trial expenses as well as hospital bills for the child.

For the first time in three years, Dammann said she finds herself, "free to serve without threat of appeal."

But she knows "for the church, it means another level of struggle. I'm mindful of that. It's going to be painful."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com


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