GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – The 36 churches from western North Carolina suing the Western North Carolina Conference of United Methodist Church because they want to leave the denomination without having to pay exit fees to get the title to their property – as some of their brethren are doing – are taking heart in a court decision announced Friday afternoon in Georgia.

Cobb County Superior Court Presiding Judge J. Stephen Schuster granted a stay in a similar suit brought by 185 churches based in greater Atlanta and said that the courts could under the First Amendment decide disputes between churches and denominations that go beyond religious doctrine and that the plaintiffs “have shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.”

It was the First Amendment’s separation of church and state that was the basis for Iredell Superior Court Judge Richard L. Doughton’s decision earlier this year to dismiss the suit brought by those 36 churches, which include 16 from the Piedmont Triad.

But those 36 churches are planning to file an appeal in the NC Court of Appeals, and attorney David Gibbs of the National Center for Life and Liberty, a nonprofit legal ministry in Clearwater, Florida, representing those churches, on Saturday sent a note to WGHP about progress in that appeal and to share the judgment in Georgia.

Wrote Gibbs: “…185 churches in GA had a major win in their case.”

WNCUMC Bishop Kenneth Carter Jr. (right) addresses church delegates during a virtual meeting also attended by Kim Ingram, the director of Ministerial Services/conference secretary. (WGHP)

In case you missed it, all of this is part of a longstanding and nationally evolving dispute because some churches hold to more conservative doctrines that don’t concur with the denomination’s adopted leniency toward same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ members of the ministry.

There are 69 congregations in the Piedmont Triad among the 192 in the Western North Carolina Conference of UMC that have received final approval to disaffiliate from UMC through a process that was specified in February 2022 under Paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline, which allows them to do so for reasons of conscience because of changes “in the requirements and provisions of the BOD related to the practice of homosexuality.”

Those 69 churches paid more than $3.7 million – some churches more than $200,000 each – under the financial terms specified by UMC that WNCUMC Bishop Kenneth Carter Jr. had said are “about fairness and responsibilities the churches have to each other.”

Each church entered a petition specific to its members’ point of view – you can read them all here – that was required to be approved by at least two-thirds of those members who were convened at the church for that purpose. Each received approval from about 96% of delegates to a special conference. Now they must pay within 60 days allocated amounts that include two years of apportionment payments (which are their scheduled contributions to the denomination), account balances for those individuals (clergy/spouses) included under UMC’s retirement program, outstanding debts UMC may be holding (none of those 69 churches owes), reimbursement of the amount of grants the church may have received from UMC in the past 10 years and, in some cases, property transfer fees.

Churches also have to remove all UMC signs and logos, and if all that is done, they take possession of the deeds on their properties that UMC has held under the “trust clause” stipulated in their affiliation agreements.

That’s why those three dozen churches – originally there were 38 – sued in Iredell County. Gibbs shared a statement from NCLL that said plaintiff churches had asked that Doughton recuse himself because he also serves as treasurer on the administrative council of Sparta United Methodist Church, which is not among those that have petitioned to leave UMC.

The statement also alleges that the district superintendent who oversees that church, Lory Beth Huffman, is married to one of the conference’s attorneys. Doughton denied the request for recusal.

NCLL says it believes that his decision was in error, which is the churches’ basis for the planned appeal.

Georgia case

All of this sounds very similar to the approach used by the churches in Georgia – a case in which Gibbs also is a counsel – and the court, in granting its preliminary injunction, countered the basis for Doughton’s dismissal.

“While the principle of separation of church and state  embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and in the Georgia Constitution of 1983 prevents courts from deciding questions involving matters of church ecclesiology, discipline, or governance,” the judgment says, “it does not prevent courts from deciding civil disputes that do not require any intrusion or excessive entanglement into ecclesiastical matters.”

The court said that its decision in this matter did not require “any impermissible entanglement in uniquely ecclesiastical affairs,” and the court said that it felt that the facts supported the plaintiffs’ arguments about the disaffiliation process.

The ruling requires the defendants to call with all due speed a church conference for each of the plaintiff churches to have a church-level vote on the issues to receive a valuation and to bring the matter before the annual conference.

The Georgia Conference of UMC did not respond immediately to the ruling, and neither did the eight regional superintendents named individually in the suit. The court said the conference had caused a “time crisis” for the churches.

Earlier this month a Columbia County Superior Court judge in Georgia mandated that Methodist North Georgia Conference allow two churches in Augusta to disaffiliate. That conference had halted its disaffiliation process in December, the Chattanooga Times reported. They were not part of the suit brought by 185 churches

UMC in North Carolina

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, with 44 counties comprising the Western Conference. In addition to the 192 churches approved two weeks ago, there are another 41 churches in the Western Conference that had disaffiliated between 2020 and 2022, and there were 12 in the Triad among 249 approved last year in the Eastern Conference.

UMC says these 192 churches have about 36,183 members (about 15% of all members in the NC Western Conference) who no longer will be members of North Carolina’s second-largest denomination.