Wednesday, February 8, 2023

38 western N.C. Methodist churches sue to leave denomination

Thirty-eight United Methodist churches in western North Carolina filed a lawsuit in N.C. Superior Court in Iredell County, demanding that they be allowed to leave the denomination immediately.

The lawsuit says the churches want to “pursue their deeply held religious beliefs” but that the denomination is seeking a “ransom” as the churches try to retain their property. Many of the churches had indicated a likely lawsuit in an August letter to Bishop Ken Carter, who oversees the denomination’s Western North Carolina conference that stretches from the eastern Triad region to the Tennessee border.

Many of the churches want to join the new Global Methodist Church, which has differing, more traditional beliefs regarding the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ members than many United Methodist leaders. The complaint alleges that the conference is denying religious freedom by making excessive demands before releasing control of the individual church property. Historically, Methodist property has been effectively owned by the denomination rather than the individual church.

The lawsuit was filed Nov. 10 in Statesville, but didn’t receive much attention until Carter issued a press release yesterday noting, “We are deeply grieved by this, as we seek to be a church united in love and in mission.” Carter said he couldn’t comment on specifics of the lawsuit, but said the denomination has tried to apply its rules in a fair manner since adopting a disaffiliation plan in 2019.

“What these churches seek is vastly different from our open and transparent process which occurs in church conferences and at our annual conference session,” Carter said. “It is an attempt to undermine the core of the connectional commitments all churches and conferences in The UMC have to one another. And, it is outside the bounds of established church law, doctrine and theology.

Four of the western N.C. conference’s largest churches by attendance are among the plaintiffs, including Weddington in Union County, Good Shepherd in Charlotte, Christ Church in Hickory and Crossroads in Concord, according to a person familiar with the matter. Still, the 38 churches represent a small fraction of the total conference membership.

The plaintiffs previously hired a Florida legal firm, the National Center for Life and Liberty, to make their claim, following a similar lawsuit by about 100 members of the Florida Annual Conference.

The western N.C. conference’s plan allows churches to leave the denomination through the end of 2023, taking properties after paying two years of apportionments and pension liabilities.

Since 2019, 41 churches in the western N.C. conference have followed church rules to disaffiliate, following connectional obligations, while 16 others are involved in the process, according to Carter.

The plaintiffs are represented by Robert Higdon Jr. and Nate Huff of the Morrisville office of the K&L Gates LLP.

The dispute is distinct from the situation in eastern North Carollina, where about 260 of the 779 United Methodist churches plan to disaffiliate or have shown some intention to do so.



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