Legal Update on Morning Star Church
Last night, a St. Charles County judge granted a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Morning Star Church against the Missouri Annual Conference. The Court found that under the facts presented in the pleadings, the church autonomy doctrine bars it from exercising subject matter jurisdiction in the case. The church autonomy doctrine, which is rooted in the First Amendment, stands for the principle that issues of church government and doctrine belong to a denomination, not to a state court. The court held that the Judicial Council of the UMC “has, and rightly should have, the final say on questions of ecclesiastical rule, custom, internal church law, church government and organization.”
“We are very pleased with yesterday’s ruling,” said Rev. Nate Berneking, Director of Finance and Administration for the Conference. “While Judge McDonough dismissed both Morning Star’s claims and our counterclaims, his order made clear that the Book of Discipline provides a means and process for disaffiliation, and that the Discipline outlines the connectional polity of the United Methodist Church.”
Morning Star’s request for a ruling in this matter would require the courts to do a “deep-dive” into doctrinal and religious matters, something the judge said would tread on “constitutionally dangerous” territory. At its heart, the court order means that Paragraph 2553 is to govern the process for disaffiliation by Morning Star or any other United Methodist congregation.
The judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit does not change Missouri Conference leaders’ commitment to mediation with the local church, now scheduled in August. The decision will allow the Conference to revisit conversation with the local church about their responsibilities and obligations to the Conference and its members.
“We remain committed to good faith negotiation and the process and payment of Paragraph 2553,” said Berneking. “That commitment is critical to protect the churches, laity and clergy who remain United Methodist, to say nothing of those members within the disaffiliating congregation who wish to voice disagreement with the disaffiliation itself.”
Morning Star sued the Conference in January of this year with an intent to disaffiliate from the Conference without paying their pension obligations and other fees as outlined by the United Methodist Book of Discipline Paragraph 2553. To read the court’s opinion, click here.
Payment of the disaffiliation withdrawal liability and three years of apportionments is intended to protect Missouri churches and clergy left in the connection following a church’s disaffiliation. Morning Star, like the other churches that have filed lawsuits including Sarcoxie UMC and Schweitzer UMC, sought an order nullifying the United Methodist trust clause. Although the Conference disagrees with this position, it is important to note that, currently, the value or ownership of church property plays no role in the disaffiliation process. Details about the process of disaffiliation are spelled out in Bishop Bob Farr’s full statement and frequently asked questions document.