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May 11, 2000 GC-065

Second group arrested in protest of church’s policies regarding gays

CLEVELAND (UMNS) — Two United Methodist bishops were among a group of 30 people arrested May 11, during a protest that temporarily halted legislative proceedings at the denomination’s quadrennial law-making assembly.

It is believed to be the first time anyone has been arrested on the floor of the denomination’s General Conference.

Bishops C. Joseph Sprague of Chicago and Susan Morrison of Albany, N.Y., were among those arrested. As the 30 were escorted from the Cleveland Convention Center, their supporters — among them General Conference delegates — shouted "Shame!" to the police officers for removing the demonstrators and to the assembly for passing legislation prohibitive to homosexuals. The supporters joined together singing "We Shall Overcome." Several delegates, overcome by emotion, burst into tears, and the presiding officer called a 15-minute recess.

Those arrested were charged with "disrupting a lawful meeting," a misdemeanor that carries a $250 fine or 30 days in jail, said Cleveland Police Lt. Sharon MacKay. She characterized those arrested as "very cooperative." They were expected to be arraigned on May 12.

The protesters were demonstrating against church laws that condemn the practice of homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching," ban ordination of homosexuals and forbid pastors from conducting same-sex unions.

The arrests were the second of the 11-day assembly. Just a day earlier, 191 people — including Sprague — protested the church’s anti-homosexuality policies by blocking a convention center exit. Those protesters, organized by the Soulforce coalition, were processed and released by the end of the day.

The May 11 demonstration occurred as the General Conference voted on major legislation concerning homosexuality. The protest was organized by AMAR, a coalition of United Methodist groups that support full inclusion of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons.

During the morning session, after the assembly voted 628-337 to retain the "incompatible" language in the Book of Discipline, about 48 AMAR members interrupted the proceedings by lining the front and main aisles. About 150 more circled the perimeter of the floor and balcony.

Jeanne Smile, an observer, suddenly stood and shouted, teetering on the edge of the upper balcony. "I’ve been gay all my life," she said weeping, her arms out. Fearing she might fall, two other demonstrators grabbed and pulled her to safety. Smile, who said she was not United Methodist, was later escorted from the auditorium.

After demonstrators refused to leave the aisles, presiding Bishop Dan Solomon of Louisiana called a 20-minute recess. When the session resumed in the afternoon, delegates were considering petitions concerning pastors who performed same-sex unions. After they voted to retain the ban on pastors performing such unions, a handful of demonstrators walked onto the stage and refused to leave. Solomon tried to regain order, gently chastising the demonstrators for "breaking covenant" by disrupting the conference.

After conferring with the protesters, Solomon allowed the group to address the assembly. AMAR member Randy Miller, of Bethany United Methodist Church in San Francisco, took the microphone.

"We are not strangers to this church," he said, noting that he and other gay and lesbian United Methodist had been raised in the church, confirmed in the church and attended Sunday school. But as they came into adulthood, they were told they were not welcome, he added.

"The covenant is already broken; the tapestry is unwoven," Miller declared. He and the others continued singing, joined by about 50 people in the visitors’ gallery and 20 to 30 delegates scattered throughout the assembly floor.

Visibly shaken, Solomon said, "I speak with anguish in my own voice for the circumstances that are about to unfold. …I bury my head in prayer."

Police escorted the demonstrators off the stage and out the side door of the convention center. They were taken away in paddy wagons, as supporters continued singing and crying.

The issue of homosexuality has been at the center of tortuous debate at every United Methodist General Conference since 1972. The 2000 assembly voted to retain: the declaration that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching"; the ban against homosexual ordination and same-sex union ceremonies; and the prohibition against using official church funds for any organization or program that promotes homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.

Besides the two bishops, several other well-known United Methodists were among those arrested, according to an unofficial list provided by Marilyn Alexander, interim executive director of the Reconciling Congregations Program. They included: the Rev. Joe Agne, a former staff member with the National Council of Churches; the Rev. Gilbert Caldwell, Denver pastor and a founding member of Black Methodists for Church Renewal; the Rev. Greg Dell of Chicago, suspended after a March 1999 church trial for performing a same-sex ceremony; Mary Gaddis, a former spokesperson for Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns; the Rev. Jeanne Audrey Powers, a retired ecumenical officer for the denomination; and Pat Schwiebert of Portland, Ore., author of Tear Soup.

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--M. Garlinda Burton

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