STATESVILLE, N.C. (WGHP) – An Iredell County Superior Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by 36 United Methodist churches seeking to separate themselves from the Western North Carolina Conference of the UMC.

Judge Richard L. Doughton in an oral ruling granted a motion to dismiss filed in January by the conference, which said asking the state to intervene in church business violated the religious protections of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“We are grateful for this ruling, which further sustains the separation of church and state jurisprudence, especially for matters already resolved by The United Methodist Church’s internal church government’s adjudicative process,” the WNCC said in a statement released by its staff.

“United Methodists throughout the world are compelled through a connectional covenant to support and uphold one another for faithful discipleship and the mission of Jesus Christ. United Methodist congregations are not autonomous. As the apostle Paul reminds us, the body, though it is made of many members, is one, each member belonging to all the others. (Romans 12:5) So, too, are we as United Methodists. As United Methodists, we hold our churches and properties in common for the benefit of the denomination, each church, and the ministry and mission of The United Methodist Church locally and throughout the world. In the Western North Carolina Conference alone, we are a connection of over one thousand local churches, fresh expressions, and campus ministries; we are in ministry with camps, retirement communities, persons with disabilities, food ministries, and children’s homes across the western half of North Carolina.”

Sixteen churches from the Piedmont Triad were among 38 that originally had signed the lawsuit filed by attorney David Gibbs of the National Center for Life and Liberty, a nonprofit legal ministry in Clearwater, Florida.

Gibbs could not be reached immediately for comment about the suit, which also named Western Conference Bishop Kenneth Carter in his capacity as bishop.

The churches wanted the courts to grant them freedom from their agreements with the church and free their deeds to their church properties so they could continue to operate without being part of the national organization.

Special meeting planned

The Western Conference, which has taken an entirely different approach than the east, last month announced a special executive session to be held virtually among clergy members, followed by the western North Carolina Annual Conference, at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., respectively on May 6.

Carter in the announcement wrote to members that “the sole purpose of the called executive session of clergy members is to vote on clergy withdrawals. The sole purpose of the called session is to vote on the WNC Conference Board of Trustees’ recommendations for churches choosing to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church through the authorized process outlined in Paragraph 2553 [of the Book of Discpline].”

His note suggests that the church that brought the lawsuit should work within that paragraph to achieve separation and that extended participation in the lawsuit would not allow this “disaffiliation” process to be completed before Dec. 31.

“By holding a Special Called Session, churches departing to become independent congregations or members of other present or future denominations can begin to live into their futures,” the announcement said. “And in the same manner, clergy who depart can follow their callings to new ministries apart from The United Methodist Church. Both the clergy session and the special session of annual conference will conclude with a blessing by Bishop Carter.”

Separations in 2022

Late last year North Carolina’s Eastern Conference of UMC approved the request of 249 churches – 12 of them in the Piedmont Triad – to disaffiliate from membership, a formal process that involves the completion of regular annual payments, contributions to pension and benefits funds and the transfer of property deeds on completion of both. 

But in the Western Conference, where 41 churches disaffiliated between 2020 and 2022 and 16 more are seeking final approval to do so, 38 churches sued because they said the rules were changed, their property has been taken hostage and the conference’s leadership is guilty of fraud in deterring their pursuit of religious freedom.

Among those churches are 16 from the Triad: Groometown, St. Andrews and Vickrey in Greensboro; Mitchell’s Gove and Fairfield in High Point; Mount Carmel and Shady Grove in Winston-Salem; Chestnut Grove in King; Wesley Chapel in Hamptonville; Central and West Bend in Asheboro; Gray’s Chapel in Franklinville; Delta in Sandy Ridge; and Bethesda in Lexington. 

Ed Rowe (left), Rebecca Wilson, Robin Hager and Jill Zundel, react to the defeat of a proposal that would allow LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage within the United Methodist Church at the denomination’s 2019 Special Session of the General Conference in St. Louis, Mo. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings, File)

Some of these churches have been around for centuries, and members who have been loyal their entire lives say they are leaving because of the denomination’s positions on same-sex marriages and ordaining LGBTQ clergy that some churches routinely defied. The Associated Press reported that some conservative churches launched a new Global Methodist Church to maintain and enforce bans on those positions and want out of UMC.

The churches had claimed that church property was being held unlawfully until churches agree to payments that some find extraordinary and unnecessary. Carter and the trustees are named individually in claims of “constructive fraud” and “breach of fiduciary duty.” 

The plaintiff churches wanted the UMC to revert to its pre-2019 process for separating, to adhere to the spiritual and religious standards in the Book of Discipline and to withdraw fees that for some churches could total in the millions. They also want the denomination to release its claim to property that they say their congregations bought and maintained and that the church has no ownership over.

The churches in their suit say they filed their paperwork to separate in August and that the Book of Discipline provides for “multiple pathways … for local churches in this situation to disaffiliate without paying a financial ransom for their church property.” 

Those that left UMC 

Ten churches from the Triad were among 41 that had disaffiliated in the Western Conference from 2020 through 2022, but no churches in the Eastern Conference had completed the separation package before a convention in late 2022, UMC officials said. 

Those churches in the Triad that have been through the process of disaffiliation from the Western Conference: (among those approved in 2020) Hardison of Mocksville and Mount Pleasant of Thomasville; (in 2021) Mount Gilead of Randolph County and Withers Chapel of Belews Creek; and (in 2022) Burnett’s Chapel of Greensboro, Cornatzer and New Union of Mocksville, Lineberry and Pleasant Grove of Denton and Maple Springs of Ramseur. 

The 12 in the Triad among those 249 approved in the Eastern Conference are Carr, Friendship, St. Luke’s and St. Paul’s, all of which are in Burlington; Love Joy, Macedonia, Troy First Methodist, Ophir and Uwharrie, all in Troy; Hebron in Mebane; Camp Springs in Reidsville; and Parson’s Grove in Candor. 

The North Carolina conferences 

The United Methodist Church in North Carolina is divided into Eastern and Western Conferences that are separated along county lines on a north-south axis from the Virginia border to South Carolina. That line meanders between Rockingham and Caswell counties, along the eastern edges of Guilford and Randolph counties and western Montgomery County ending on the eastern limits of Mecklenburg County. 

Each conference comprises hundreds of member churches, grouped into districts, covering hundreds of thousands of congregants. Each has its own headquarters and staff and is led by a bishop and a board of directors.

The Western NC Conference of UMC is based in Huntersville, and Carter is the bishop. Connie Mitchell is bishop of the Eastern Conference, which is based in Garner. 

Some churches disaffiliated years ago, when the UMC’s policies were more restrictive than those churches wanted. But when fears that the policies involving gay rights might change in the Book of Discipline, more started to talk about disaffiliation because the policies were becoming too lenient. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the bishop of the Eastern Conference. Connie Mitchell Shelton took over the job late last year.