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Methodists Put Lesbian Minister on Trial

A jury may remove the Rev. Karen Dammann from the clergy because she lives openly in a same-sex relationship. Protesters try to block the church proceeding.

March 18, 2004|From Associated Press

BOTHELL, Wash. — Dozens of demonstrators were arrested Wednesday as they tried to stop a church trial that could remove a lesbian from the Methodist ministry for living openly in a lesbian relationship.

The Rev. Karen Dammann last week married her partner of nine years, Meredith Savage, in Portland, Ore., where Multnomah County officials have begun allowing same-sex marriages. The couple has a 5-year-old son.

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.

At Dammann's request, the trial in Bothell United Methodist Church, about 12 miles northeast of Seattle, was to be open to the public after jurors were chosen. She entered the church without commenting to reporters.

Dammann pleaded not guilty, and in an opening statement to the jurors, her church counsel, the Rev. Bob Ward, compared the struggle of gays and lesbians with the struggle that women and minorities have had in having their rights recognized.

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.' "

He said homosexuals are relegated to a life of "hiding and lying."

"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 they need to find her guilty.

The trial was to continue today. If nine of the 13 clergy members on the jury convict her, the panel would vote on a punishment that could include loss of ministry. If Dammann is acquitted, she will be considered in good standing and be available for new assignments.

Outside, about 100 people demonstrated loudly but peacefully, and many blocked church officials from entering the Bothell United Methodist. Police arrested 33 people when they refused to move.

The demonstrators included members of Soulforce, an interfaith organization that supports gay rights. A handful of people protesting homosexuality stood and held signs in the church driveway.

Soulforce member Karen Weldin said the organization came to the church "to speak and give people the chance to stop this evil trial."

Dammann, who is on leave from First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg, 95 miles east of Seattle, is charged with "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible to Christian teachings."

Although the church's social principles support rights and liberties for gays and lesbians, Methodist law prohibits "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from being ordained ministers.

"Clearly the jury has to look at this prohibition and decide if it's consistent with the rest of our Methodist rules and with the Bible," said Lindsay Thompson, Dammann's lawyer. "There are people who passionately believe both sides of that issue."

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