PHILADELPHIA - 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."