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Judge Dismisses Lawsuit by Florida United Methodist Churches

(RNS) — A Florida judge has dismissed a lawsuit originally brought by more than 100 United Methodist churches wishing to immediately disaffiliate from the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The United Methodist Church logo, left, and a map of districts in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church / Courtesy images

Eighth Judicial Circuit Court Judge George M. Wright granted a motion to dismiss the suit Monday (April 17), saying the court lacked jurisdiction.

“We applaud the court’s ruling today. This clarifies that if a church wants to leave the Conference, it must follow the rules established by the denomination,” Florida Bishop Tom Berlin said in a written statement from the conference.

“We have always supported a process that allows for a gracious exit, and which ensures the departing churches meet their financial, legal and moral obligations to not harm the Conference or the other member churches during their departure.”

The conference has argued that the United Methodist Church’s top court, the Judicial Council, already ruled that churches wishing to leave the denomination must follow the disaffiliation plan approved by a 2019 special session of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference.

The judge granted its motion to dismiss the suit, though United Methodist News noted he left it open for an appeal.

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The lawsuit filed last summer in Bradford County, Florida, by the National Center for Life and Liberty on behalf of 106 churches alleges the disaffiliation plan’s rules—which require churches to meet certain financial obligations before they can leave with their property—are “onerous, and in many cases, prohibitive.”

Since the special session, which strengthened language in the denomination’s Book of Discipline banning same-sex marriages and the ordination of clergy who identify as LGBTQ, more than 2,000 churches have left the United Methodist Church—mostly conservative churches that believe the denomination is moving away from a biblical understanding of sexuality.

At the time the suit was filed, the Rev. Keith Boyette, head of the conservative Global Methodist Church that broke away from the United Methodist Church last year, told Religion News Service, “Florida is the first of what I would anticipate might be a number of similar lawsuits occurring.”

Since then, the number of churches participating in the lawsuit has dwindled to 71 as others withdrew to follow the disaffiliation plan approved by the denomination, according to United Methodist News.

A second lawsuit, by 36 churches in North Carolina also represented by the National Center for Life and Liberty, was also dismissed last month.

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.