After disaffiliation halt, North Georgia Methodist churches sue the denomination

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in Dalton, seen on Friday, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in Dalton, seen on Friday, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In a new lawsuit, roughly 185 United Methodist churches claim North Georgia Conference leaders conspired to deprive the congregations of their property rights by halting the disaffiliation process late last year.

Amid a United Methodist Church schism in which thousands of theologically conservative congregations have moved to exit a denomination they say has wavered from their values, it appears that no lawsuit yet filed against a conference has seen so many churches take part.

The civil suit, filed Thursday afternoon in Superior Court in Cobb County, Georgia -- the seat of the North Georgia Conference -- seeks the prompt resumption of the disaffiliation process after the outgoing bishop -- citing what she described as rampant disinformation -- abruptly halted it Dec. 28.

The complaint names outgoing bishop, Sue Haupert-Johnson, as well as the current North Georgia Conference bishop, Robin Dease, and the conference trustees among the defendants.

The lawsuit says the move to stop disaffiliation emerged after it became clear hundreds of conference churches intended to leave. As many congregations prepared to hold official votes on disaffiliation, the conference conspired to "run out the clock" on the process, the suit said, noting the clause under which the churches sought to leave with their property sunsets at the end of 2023.

"This is not something where we can let six years go by, and then we'll just sort out the damages," said an attorney for the plaintiffs, David Gibbs III, by phone Thursday.

He said the conference will likely take a month or two to respond, and he anticipated a court hearing by late spring.

Dease shared news of the lawsuit with the North Georgia Conference late Friday afternoon, according a statement on the conference website. She reaffirmed past conference positions that pro-disaffiliation campaigns had spread misleading information and failed to operate in good faith. The conference said this threatened the integrity of the disaffiliation votes that had been set to take place. Dease said she would keep the conference apprised of developments.

Haupert-Johnson, now the bishop of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodists Church, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The schism within the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination is years in the making. United Methodist rules forbid the ordination of openly gay clergy and church sanction of same-sex marriage, but some United Methodist leaders have disobeyed these policies in protest.

Frustrated in turn with what they see as a wayward denomination incapable of enforcing its rules, theological conservatives say these issues are the flash point for a far more profound disconnect having to do with the authority of scripture.

The conference, for its part, has said framing the debate as being about the authority of scripture mischaracterizes the impasse.

Yet many churches leaning toward disaffiliation perceive a disconnect between the direction of the denomination as a whole and their own congregation, Carolyn Moore, who pastors Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia, said in a phone interview Friday.

Moore chairs the global council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which has helped form the breakaway Global Methodist Church denomination. But she turned her attention to local conference matters after the disaffiliation halt.

Moore said she tried repeatedly to reach conference leadership and get those officials to resume the process, only to be referred to the conference attorney.

The plaintiff churches in the lawsuit make up more than a quarter of the congregations in the North Georgia Conference, which extends from Northwest Georgia south and east past Atlanta. It is not immediately clear what proportion of the total conference membership the churches comprise.

Plaintiffs include about nine churches in the greater Chattanooga area.

The churches were at various stages of leaving when the conference halted the process, Gibbs said. Two hundred churches expressed interest in joining the suit, he said, and most of these -- the lawsuit lists about 185 -- have chosen to proceed with litigation.

Gibbs is the president and general counsel at the National Center for Life and Liberty, a Florida-based nonprofit that describes itself as a legal ministry defending the "Bible-based values upon which our nation was founded: church liberties, parental liberties, individual liberties and issues of life."

The firm, Gibbs said, has represented upwards of 1,000 United Methodist churches amid the disaffiliation process. Some congregations, for example, have sued the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, which has sought to tax disaffiliating churches on a huge percentage of their property value, he said. Other disputes along similar lines have taken place in Florida, North Carolina and beyond.

But Gibbs said no conference has seen so many churches participate as North Georgia, and none resemble the nature of the legal challenge being waged.

"The North Georgia fact pattern is truly unique in that there is no way out," Gibbs said.

(READ MORE: North Georgia halted disaffiliations. Then a Dalton Methodist pastor left his church behind -- and started a new congregation)

Seventy churches in North Georgia went through the conference disaffiliation process and were approved to leave last year. Plaintiffs, which make up churches still interested in leaving, say they have been patient only to be repeatedly misled by denominational leaders.

Moore said she could see how for the average layperson the impasse might seem confusing, but she says when it comes to theological disputes, anything contrary to your opinion will feel like disinformation.

She said there is a vast chasm between the orthodox and progressive versions of the Christian faith.

"I want to respect those who disagree with me," she said. "I want to give them all the space they need in order to pursue their theological convictions. I think that in order for all of us to do that with integrity, we need space. And that requires grace on the part of those who have power and control."

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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