The Rev. Karen Dammann, a Methodist minister, was put on trial in March at Bothell United Methodist Church for declaring herself a lesbian. She was charged with “practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible to Christian teachings.” Methodist Church law prohibits the ordination of practicing homosexuals. She pleaded not guilty. She was tried before a jury of 13 pastors and if nine votes were needed to convict. Dammann has been on leave as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg, 95 miles east of Seattle.
“God called me into ordained ministry and I just can’t believe that God makes a mistake,” Dammann said during her trial. “It’s possible that this will be a prophetic moment for the church,” she said. Her defence team tried to show that church officials knew Dammann was a lesbian five years ago and took no action against her. In his closing arguments, her church counsel, the Rev. Robert C. Ward, asked jurors to adhere to church principles on inclusiveness and justice, not to the letter of church rules. “We need to be careful about creating rules that exclude people,” Ward said. “You are faced with a choice to make love practical, to make love plain, and to do what is right.”
The Rev. James C. Finkbeiner, who prosecuted the case, argued that Dammann, by her own admission, is a practicing lesbian and that was all the jury needed to consider to find her guilty. “This is a trial about Reverend Dammann,” Finkbeiner said. “The law of the church is not on trial. I admit this will make this decision much more painful to reach.”
The Rev. Elaine Stanovsky, who supervised Dammann when she was a pastor at a Seattle church, said she visited Dammann and her partner, Meredith Savage, shortly after Savage had a baby boy, who is now 5. Stanovsky said Dammann told her she was considering asking for family leave to care for Savage, who also was having problems with her hip. Stanovsky said she did not believe Dammann was admitting her homosexuality, but was aware they were a family. “They were making decisions as a family. They were caring for one another as a family,” she said.
In February 2001, when she sought a new church appointment, Dammann sent a letter to church officials acknowledging her sexual orientation. Bishop Elias Galvan of the church’s Pacific Northwest Conference received the letter and filed a complaint against her. He said he was simply following church rules. The United Methodist clergy of the Pacific Northwest Conference voted to retain Dammann, but the Judicial Council of the denomination Dammann declared her sexual preference in February 2001, when she sought a new church appointment. After receiving her letter, Methodist Bishop Elias Galvan, under church orders, filed a complaint against Dammann. The United Methodist clergy of the Pacific Northwest Conference voted to retain Dammann, but the Judicial Council of the denomination, based in Nashville, Tennessee, reversed that decision in the Autumn of 2003. A church committee voted in January to put Dammann on trial.
During the trial, retired Bishop Jack Tuell testified that church law and the social principles on which it is based are ambiguous and difficult to interpret. “It is my opinion that the United Methodist Church has never declared the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching,” he said. The jury also heard testimony on the church’s earlier struggle with admitting minorities to the ministry and how that paralleled the turmoil over homosexuals. “I, being an African-American, was incompatible, both in the nation and within the church,” said retired priest Rev. Gilbert Caldwell. He said the church must move on from its focus on homosexuality when there are more important issues such as hunger and war.
The trial was the first against a homosexual pastor since 1987, when the credentials of the Rev. Rose Mary Denman of New Hampshire were revoked. In the week before the trial, Dammann married Savage in Portland, Oregon, where officials began allowing gay marriages earlier in March.
After about 10 hours of deliberations, the jury of 13 pastors ruled in favour of Karen Dammann. The ruling means Dammann is in good standing with the church and available for new assignments. She will be allowed to continue her ministry. The jury issued a statement saying the church “did not present sufficient clear and convincing evidence to sustain the charge.” “We realize that the church is divided regarding issues related to homosexuality,” the jury said in its statement. “We, the Trial Court, are far from unanimous regarding biblical and theological understandings.” The jury said it made its decision “after many hours of painful and prayerful deliberations, and listening for and to the word of God.”