By Paul Black
MOUNDS CITY – A Pulaski County Circuit Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Illinois Great Rivers Conference against a breakaway congregation that declared its independence in March, but the judge left open the possibility of the conference refiling its suit after “connecting the dots” in a case involving the denomination’s trust clause.
In an hour-long hearing Nov. 10, Judge William Thurston dismissed the case, citing that the conference had named Ohio Chapel United Methodist Church as the defendant, while the deed of the property is in the name of the church’s trustees.
Attorney Mark Johnson, counsel for Ohio Chapel, argued that the Conference filed suit against the wrong party. “We have two entities here – the church and the church’s Board of Trustees,” Johnson said. “I have two clients and represent them both, but the deed names the Board of Trustees.”
Conference Chancellor John Kaurauef argued that the distinction being drawn was without merit. “In United Methodist polity, the Board of Trustees cares for the property held in trust for the benefit of the denomination. They are not a separate entity but part of the congregation as the congregation elects the trustees that serve.”
“I need you to connect the dots showing that relationship,” Thurston said, ordering the dismissal without prejudice, meaning that the lawsuit could be edited and refiled within 28 days and still have standing in court. Conference counsel has indicated the suit will be refiled and attorneys for the church will have 28 days to file a response.
Thurston also urged the Conference and congregation to work toward settling their dispute, likening to a family court matter that involves the separation of assets from a marriage. Conference and church representatives will discuss matters in a phone call the week of Nov. 16.
Ohio Chapel, located in the Cache River District, declared its independence from The United Methodist Church in March. Its pastor, the Rev. Tammy Horn, was a part-time local pastor and had served the church for 11 years and announced two weeks later that she was discontinuing as a local pastor, effective June 30.
Following Horn’s discontinuance, Keaton appointed Rev. Alan Milligan, conference evangelist and pastor of the nearby Karnak UMC as its pastor July 1. When Rev. Milligan showed up to hold his first worship service July 5, he was met by members who had locked the church and denied Rev. Milligan entry. On July 12, when Rev. Milligan returned, a Pulaski County deputy sheriff met Milligan indicating that only invited guests were allowed entry and that he was not welcome. Since that time, the congregation has continued to occupy the building and the bulletin board still lists Horn as its pastor.
At the time of the March announcement, the church told Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton that they wish to separate from the denomination for more congregational autonomy. Following the filing of suit by the conference in August, the chair of the church’s trustees, claimed that to remain in The United Methodist Church would require the church to hold same-sex weddings in its buildings in light of the June Supreme Court ruling, legalizing same-sex marriages in all 50 states.
The Supreme Court ruling, however, did not take away the discretion of a denomination to not hold such ceremonies. And The United Methodist Church’s position barring same-sex marriages from being held in United Methodist churches and a ban against United Methodist pastors from officiating over same-sex marriages has not changed, as only General Conference can make such changes to official church positions.