Amid an ongoing church schism, a judge this past week ordered the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church to let two congregations in Augusta, Georgia, proceed with the disaffiliation process — which the conference abruptly halted in December.
The two cases are separate from an ongoing lawsuit involving more than 180 plaintiff North Georgia churches, including some in the greater Chattanooga area, which collectively argued in a March suit that the conference's disaffiliation halt threatens to destroy their congregations and deprive them of their property rights.
But disaffiliation advocates describe the Columbia County Superior Court orders Wednesday in favor of Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church and Mann-Mize United Methodist Church as boding well for the larger suit, which was filed in a different county.
Though a minority in terms of overall churches, a significant chunk of theologically conservative congregations are splitting — or seeking to split — from the United Methodist Church, the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination, amid disputes on LGBTQ policies, which departing churches characterize as flash points for deeper divisions.
The denomination established a process to govern how U.S. churches can leave with their property. But individual conferences have considerable discretion as to how they administer it.
Disaffiliation advocates said the North Georgia Conference's approach has been notably unjust. The conference approved 70 churches — about a tenth of its congregations — to depart in 2022. But in late December, its outgoing bishop abruptly halted all further disaffiliations, citing rampant disinformation that she said undermined the integrity of the process.
Churches still seeking to depart disputed the disinformation claim and argued that in practice, the "pause" (as the conference described it) could keep them unwillingly stuck in the denomination for the foreseeable future. The policy governing disaffiliations expires at the end of 2023, and disaffiliation requests must be approved by a vote of the conference, which is scheduled to meet just once before then, from June 1-3.
Given that, churches considering leaving have sought court intervention. In February, Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church in Augusta sued the conference, asking a judge to order the church's district superintendent to hold an official congregational disaffiliation vote in time for the upcoming conferencewide meeting.
The North Georgia Conference has argued the secular court lacks jurisdiction to hear the suits. But in her order Wednesday, Columbia County Judge Sheryl Jolly drew on Georgia precedent in her argument that the state could be a neutral party to adjudicate a dispute within a religious organization — which is not the case in every state.
On Wednesday, Jolly denied the North Georgia conference's motion to dismiss the suit and granted the requested injunction. Jolly also granted an injunction requested by Mann-Mize, which sued the conference in April, court documents show.
In the Trinity on the Hill case, the judge wrote that, upon initial review, "Plaintiffs have shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their claims."
Her order responded to slightly different legal arguments than those made in the larger lawsuit. But the fact patterns are similar.
"It tracks every argument that we anticipate the other side making," said Dan Parr, an attorney for the 180-plus plaintiff churches in the separate suit, filed in Cobb County, where they are still seeking an emergency hearing.
In Georgia, Superior Court decisions, unlike Appellate Court decisions, are not binding upon other Superior Court judges, but they still have persuasive power, Parr said by phone Friday.
In a statement posted to its website Thursday, the North Georgia Conference said it plans to appeal.