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Methodist pastor who performed gay wedding to learn fate

The Rev. Frank Schaefer right LebanPa. walks gymnasium  before facing his sentencing Camp Innabah United Methodist retreSpring City Pa.

The Rev. Frank Schaefer, right, of Lebanon Pa., walks to the gymnasium before facing his sentencing at Camp Innabah, a United Methodist retreat, in Spring City Pa. Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. | AP Photo

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SPRING CITY, Pa. — A day after convicting one of their own of breaking church law, a jury of United Methodist clergy returned Tuesday to determine the punishment for a minister who officiated at the same-sex wedding of his son.

A jury of his pastoral peers convicted the Rev. Frank Schaefer on Monday of breaking his vows by officiating at the 2007 ceremony in Massachusetts after a trial that has rekindled debate over the denomination’s policies on homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

The jury reconvened Tuesday morning for the penalty phase, at which both sides will present witnesses. Schaefer could face punishment ranging from a reprimand to a suspension to losing his minister’s credentials.

The Rev. Christopher Fisher, who is serving as the church’s prosecutor, urged the jury in his opening statement to consider whether Schaefer will “repent of and renounce his disobedience to the (Methodist Book of) Discipline,” and promise to obey the denomination’s book of law and doctrine in the future.

Schaefer’s counsel, the Rev. Robert Coombe, asked the jury to show “love and grace” to Schaefer.

“You can uphold the Discipline without being punitive and retributive,” he said.

Schaefer didn’t deny that he performed his son’s wedding, but said he did it out of love, not a desire to flout church teaching on homosexuality.

“I did not want to make this a protest about the doctrine of the church. I wasn’t trying to be an advocate,” Schaefer testified at his trial, held at a Methodist retreat in southeastern Pennsylvania. “I just wanted this to be a beautiful family affair, and it was that.”

But Fisher told jurors that Schaefer’s disobedience couldn’t go unpunished.

“Ministers are not free to reinterpret (their) vows according to personal preference,” said Fisher, whose closing argument condemning homosexuality prompted Schaefer’s supporters to stand in silent protest in the gymnasium that served as a temporary courtroom.

“As a father, I understand the desire to show love and support to my children,” Fisher said. “It’s not always true we can do for our children everything they want us to do. True love draws boundaries.”

The nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination accepts gay and lesbian members, but it rejects the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” and forbids pastors from marrying same-sex partners.

Testifying in his defense Monday, Schaefer said he might have lost what he called his “ritual purity” by disobeying the Methodist Book of Discipline, but he said he felt he was obeying God’s command to minister to everyone.

The church’s sole witness was Jon Boger, a member of Schaefer’s congregation in Lebanon, who filed a complaint against the pastor less than a month before the six-year statute of limitations was set to expire.

He said he felt betrayed when he learned earlier this year 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.

Boger acknowledged that his mother — the church’s choir director for more than 40 years — and Schaefer had a falling out in the months leading up to the complaint. But he denied that is what motivated him to follow up on rumors that Schaefer had officiated at his son’s wedding.



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