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Appeals court: States can't ban gay marriage

DENVER (AP) — A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that states must allow gay couples to marry, finding the Constitution protects same-sex relationships and putting a remarkable legal winning streak across the country one step closer to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pastor defrocked over gay wedding is reinstated

 

MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press
MICHAEL RUBINKAM, Associated Press

Gay-Marriage-Methodis Sidd

United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer speaks during a news conference Tuesday, June 24, 2014, at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia. Schaefer, who presided over his son's same-sex wedding ceremony and vowed to perform other gay marriages if asked, can return to the pulpit after a United Methodist Church appeals panel on Tuesday overturned a decision to defrock him. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

 

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Pennsylvania pastor who broke church law by presiding over his son's same-sex wedding ceremony and then became an outspoken activist for gay rights can return to the pulpit after a United Methodist Church appeals panel on Tuesday overturned a decision to defrock him.

 

The nine-person panel ordered the church to restore Frank Schaefer's pastoral credentials, saying the jury that convicted him last year erred when fashioning his punishment. He was then transferred to the California conference of the church, effective July 1.

 

"I've devoted my life to this church, to serving this church, and to be restored and to be able to call myself a reverend again and to speak with this voice means so much to me," an exultant Schaefer told The Associated Press, adding he intends to work for gay rights "with an even stronger voice from within the United Methodist Church."

 

The church suspended Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, for officiating his son's 2007 wedding, then defrocked him when he refused to promise to uphold the Methodist law book "in its entirety," including its ban on clergy performing same-sex marriages.

 

Schaefer appealed, arguing the decision was wrong because it was based on an assumption he would break church law in the future.

 

The appeals panel, which met in Linthicum, Maryland, last week to hear the case, upheld a 30-day suspension that Schaefer has already served and said he should get back pay dating to when the suspension ended in December.

 

Bishop Peggy Johnson of the church's eastern Pennsylvania conference said Tuesday she would abide by the panel's decision and return him to active service.

 

The ruling can be appealed to the Methodist church's highest court. The pastor who prosecuted Schaefer, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, said he has not made a decision about an appeal.

 

"I'm still in prayerful consideration about that," said Fisher, calling Tuesday's decision "not entirely unexpected."

 

At his request, Schaefer accepted a transfer to the California-Pacific Annual Conference, said Bishop Minerva G. Carcano, who said he would appoint the pastor to the Isla Vista Student Ministry in Santa Barbara.

 

The issue of gay marriage has long roiled the United Methodist Church, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination. Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church policies that allow gay members but ban "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from becoming clergy and forbid ministers from performing same-sex marriages.

 

Traditionalists say clergy have no right to break church law just because they disagree with it. Some conservative pastors are calling for a breakup of the denomination, which has 12 million members worldwide, saying the split over gay marriage is irreconcilable.

 

Schaefer said Tuesday's decision "signals a major change within the United Methodist Church, for sure."

 

The appeals panel, however, suggested it was not making a broader statement about the church's position on homosexuality but based its decision solely on the facts of Schaefer's case.

 

The jury's punishment was illegal under church law, the appeals panel concluded, writing in its decision that "revoking his credentials cannot be squared with the well-established principle that our clergy can only be punished for what they have been convicted of doing in the past, not for what they may or may not do in the future."

 

The decision also noted that Schaefer's son had asked him to perform the wedding; that the ceremony was small and private, held not in a Methodist church but in a Massachusetts restaurant; and that Schaefer did not publicize the wedding until a member of his congregation learned of it and filed the complaint in April 2013.

 

"The committee notes that, in another case involving different facts, a majority of its members might well have concluded that a different penalty better serves the cause of achieving a just resolution," the panel said, adding that some of its members wanted a longer suspension for Schaefer.

 

Schaefer, 52, said he expects the decision to stand.

 

"The church is changing," he said, "and that is good news for everybody."

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Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.

The three-judge panel in Denver ruled 2-1 that states cannot deprive people of the fundamental right to marry simply because they want to be wedded to someone of the same sex.

The judges added they don't want to brand as intolerant those who oppose gay marriage, but said there is no reasonable objection to the practice.

"It is wholly illogical to believe that state recognition of love and commitment of same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples," they wrote, addressing arguments that the ruling could undermine traditional marriage.

The decision by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld a lower court ruling that struck down Utah's gay marriage ban. However, the panel immediately put Wednesday's ruling on hold so it could be appealed, either to the entire 10th Circuit or directly to the nation's highest court.

"All I can say is that we are thrilled," said Kody Partridge, one of the plaintiffs. She and her wife, Laurie Wood, were working in the garden when they heard the news.

"This is such as historic thing, not just for Utah but for Laurie and me" and plaintiffs across the country, Partridge said. "This is a big day."

The decision gives increased momentum to a legal cause that already has compiled an impressive record in the lower courts after the Supreme Court last year struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Since then, 16 federal judges have issued rulings siding with gay marriage advocates.

The latest of those rulings was in Indiana, where a federal judge on Wednesday struck down that state's same-sex marriage ban in a decision that immediately allowed gay couples to wed. The Indiana and Utah decisions came just one day ahead of the one-year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down part of a federal anti-gay marriage law.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said Utah's legal victory was sweeter because of where it originated — a conservative, deeply religious state in the heart of the mountain west.

"What is so powerful here is that we have the first federal appellate court and ... it's a case coming out of Utah affirming in the strongest, clearest, boldest terms that the Constitution guarantees the freedom to marry and equal protection for all Americans and all means all, including gay couples," he said.

John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, also lauded the decision, calling it a "huge boost" to the gay marriage movement.

Gay marriage opponents, meanwhile, have vowed to continue their fight. Along with the Catholic Church, several other major denominations remain adamant in opposing same-sex marriage.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a statement on its website Wednesday that the church maintains marriage should be between a man and a woman but "all people should be treated with respect."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, argued the court overstepped its bounds.

"While judges can, by judicial fiat, declare same-sex 'marriage' legal, they will never be able to make it right," Perkins said in a statement. "The courts, for all their power, can't overturn natural law."

The Utah-based Sutherland Institute called the ruling disappointing and said it wrongly overrides the will of Utah voters.

In his dissent Wednesday, 10th Circuit Justice Paul J. Kelly Jr. said the court was overstepping its authority and that states should be able to decide who can marry.

"We should resist the temptation to become philosopher-kings, imposing our views under the guise of the Fourteenth Amendment," he wrote.

More than 1,000 Utah same-sex couples wed in December after the initial ruling in the case before the Supreme Court issued a stay. Along with the Utah case, the 10th Circuit panel considered a challenge to the Oklahoma ban. It did not immediately issue a decision on that case Wednesday.

Sharon Baldwin, one of the Oklahoma plaintiffs, said moments after the Utah ruling that she is optimistic because the two cases are so similar.

"We're thrilled for the plaintiffs in Utah," she said. "We think this is wonderful news, and we're excited to see our ruling coming soon."

Though the Utah and Oklahoma cases have been closely watched, it is unclear whether one of them will be the first to reach the Supreme Court. The high court could choose from cases moving through five other federal appellate courts, and wouldn't consider a case until next year at the earliest.

Attorneys representing Utah and Oklahoma argued voters have the right to define marriage in their states. Gay rights lawyers countered that they cannot do so in a way that deprives gay people of their fundamental rights.

The appellate ruling comes 42 years after the Supreme Court refused to hear a case of two men who were refused a marriage license in Minnesota, finding there was no legal issue for the justices to consider, and just 10 years after 11 states voted to outlaw gay marriage.

Now same-sex marriage is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Recent polls show a majority of Americans support it.

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Online:

Ruling from 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, https://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/opinions/13/13-4178.pdf

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Associated Press writers Lisa Leff in San Francisco and Kristi Eaton in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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