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Church jury considers fate of pastor who officiated same-sex wedding

SPRING CITY, Pa. – A jury of United Methodist clergy will decide whether one of their own is guilty of violating church law by officiating his son’s same-sex wedding.

The church put the Rev. Frank Schaefer on trial Monday in southeast Pennsylvania, accusing him of breaking his pastoral vows by presiding over the 2007 ceremony in Massachusetts.

The 13-member jury got the case Monday afternoon. Schaefer could face punishment ranging from a reprimand to losing his minister’s credentials if the jury convicts him.

Testifying in his defense, the 51-year-old pastor said he decided to break church rules out of love for his son. He said he might have lost what he called his “ritual purity” by disobeying the Methodist Book of Discipline, but that he felt he was obeying God’s command to minister to everyone.

“I love the United Methodist Church. I’ve been a minister for almost 20 years, and there are so many good things about the United Methodist Church, except for that one rule,” said Schaefer, of Lebanon.

Schaefer pleaded not guilty at the beginning of the high-profile trial, which is rekindling debate about the denomination’s policy on gay marriage.

The church’s lawyer, the Rev. Christopher Fisher, told the jury that Schaefer clearly violated the Book of Discipline. He said the complainant, Jon Boger – a member of Schaefer’s congregation – was dismayed and shocked when he learned this year about the ceremony.

Fisher used his closing argument to condemn homosexuality as immoral, and said Schaefer had no right to break a Methodist law that bans pastors from performing same-sex marriages just because he disagreed with church teaching.

Fisher told jurors they were duty-bound to convict.

“You’ll give an account for that at the last day, as we all will,” he told the jury, to audible gasps from spectators.

Dozens of Schaefer’s supporters stood in silent protest as Fisher spoke, then linked hands and sang “We Shall Overcome” after the jury left to begin deliberating.

Boger, the church’s sole witness, testified earlier Monday that he felt betrayed when he found out that Schaefer, who had baptized his children and buried his grandparents, had presided over a gay wedding.

“When pastors take the law of the church in their own hand ... it undermines their own credibility as a leader and also undermines the integrity of the church as a whole,” Boger said.

He said he understood Schafer’s motivation.

“It’s his son. He loves his son. In a way I felt bad for him,” Boger said. “But he’s also shown no remorse or repentance, nor has he apologized to anyone.”

When Schaefer chose to hide the marriage from the congregation, Boger said, “It was a lie and a broken covenant.”

But Schaefer testified he had informed his church superiors of his part in the marriage. He said he kept it from his conservative church’s congregation because it would be divisive.

“I did not want to make this a protest about the doctrine of the church. I wasn’t trying to be an advocate,” Schaefer said. “I just wanted this to be a beautiful family affair, and it was that.”

Schaefer faced no discipline until April, less than a month before the church’s six-year statute of limitations was set to expire, when Boger filed a complaint.

The country’s largest mainline Protestant denomination accepts gay and lesbian members, but it rejects the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Schaefer’s son, Tim Schaefer, came out to his parents at age 17, revealing he had contemplated suicide because of his struggle with sexual identity and the church’s stance on homosexuality.

“He had heard messages that were hateful from the church, from the culture around him, that told him you’re not normal, you’re not valid, you’re a freak,” Schaefer testified.

The pastor said he and his wife told their son he was a “beloved child of God.”

Years later, Tim Schaefer asked his father to marry him.

“To say no to his request would have negated all the affirmations I gave him over the years,” he said.

The trial is being held at a Methodist retreat about 60 miles east of his church.

Schaefer could have avoided a trial if he had agreed to never again perform a same-gender wedding, but he declined because three of his four children are gay.

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