Taking Legal Action Against Church?
Hi Folks -
I'm brand new to the forum, but have been marginally involved with Soulforce for a few years. In 2004 I was part of a direct action at the national meeting of my former denomination and was honored to speak and pray with Mel White at that time.
In 2001, I came forward to confess an affair with a college professor in the small town where I served a church of a large mainline denomination. I shared the info with my wife and we attended a counseling program in Colorado recommended through Focus on the Family. Returning to NY, I spoke to my denominational supervisor and requested a leave of absence to further work on issues of purity and personal holiness. He agreed with reluctance (saying I was doing all the right things) but when he informed our bishop, she immediately summoned me to her office. She asked me to repeat my story, and though I refused to identify as a 'self-avowed practicing homosexual' (I was on the ex-gay path and wasn't 'practicing' let alone identifying as gay) she asked me to surrender my ordination. WIth my wife by my side, she pointed her finger in my face and shouted (I'm not making this up) "You Slept With A Man!" During the 15 minute meeting I resisted until finally she threatened to tell my congregation that I was gaythat very day if I didn't give up my credentials (I had just completed a Doctor of Ministry degree, was senior pastor of a large, multi-staff church, and was well-respected for my service to the denomination.) I buckled under the pressure for fear that my children would be subjected to shame and ridicule in our community.
For three years I struggled in many ways to make sense of life and support my family. We had to move in with another family, and I spent all of our savings to get by. In the end, thank God, I came to fully accept my orientation and was consequently divorced. The UCC welcomed me into its fold, and I am grateful to be serving a small, struggling congregation in the inner city as an openly gay pastor.
In the 4 1/2 years since I was pressured to leave my prior denomination, I have learned the following:
1. The bishop erred by not following the requirements of the denomination to provide or allow for a peer advocate to be present in my meeting with her.
2. Three months later, my former supervisor told me that the bishop had acted hastily and regretted her actions. By then the damage was done, of course.
2. In her prior region of service, she was known to be supportive of LGBT persons in ministry.
3. The bishop is widely known in pro-gay circles to be a lesbian. She has a partner who lives in another state.
All of this is baffling and deeply disturbing to me. I strongly suspect she was using this situation as a newly-elected bishop to show her leadership strength. The prior bishop, she told me, was 'soft' on moral issues. Equally, I suspect her actions served to protect her from suspicions re: her own orientation in a very conservative diocese (I can't know this for sure, of course, but I do wonder.)
The hypocrisy of this situation stuns me, especially when I consider what my children and ex wife suffered as the result of the bishop's actions.
I am aware from speaking to other clergy in the diocese that some who had considered becoming more honest about their orientation have retreated further into the closet and would never consider coming forward themselves as the result of what happened to me.
Several persons, including former colleagues, have urged me to take legal action. I am not yet certain how I feel about this, though I would at least like the bishop and her advisors to revisit what happened and issue a formal apology if nothing else. They closed ranks quickly when I surrendered my ordination, so I know friendly dialogue is not possible.
Does anyone know of how I could go about getting legal counsel? I truthfully don't have money to hire a lawyer on my own (the divorce wiped me out and I only have a part-time church income plus some odd jobs.) I'm open to any or all suggestions.
Peace to you all.
Wow, Rick. What a story...
I would talk to the bishop and find out if she truly is repentant and willing to rectify the situation through a public apology, stepping down, or reinstating your credentials, etc...
If she is unwilling to dialogue, I would consider briniging a formal complaint to the denomination... if they have a judicial process.
Then I would consider the court of the press.
Lambda Legal Defense
What a harrowing story.
My partner and I have been involved in a legal dispute, that being the classic gay problem of a will that was almost broken by a surviving family member after the death of my husband's mentor. Luckily, that person did not prevail in court. But we went through 4 years of hell.
It sounds like you have some idea of what you want out of the situation personally, that is, a formal apology. A well-written letter from a lawyer might be helpful in this regard if the threat (and one has to be ready to back one's words up) of legal action is implied.
You might find Lambda Legal Defense helpful- at least in terms of how to navigiate the matter legally- statute of limitations and all that. I believe they have a help-line. At least that's a start if you decide to pursue legal action. Though, having been through a court case, I encourage you to settle the matter by non-legal means if at all possible.
Now that you are 'on with your life', you'll need to think about the time and effort- psychic as well as monetary- that will have to go into it. Based on the counsel you get, you'll have to weight the matter carefully. As they say: justice is blind. Getting the facts first and then deciding how to proceed with them may be the most important factor: there is the matter of the paper trail. Courts place a high degree of emphasis on this.
Do you have the means to prove your case?
In the meanwhile, I agree with Nathan: there is nothing like telling you story. Only you can do that.
Where is my head?
Forgot to mention. My husband did sue the Catholic Diocese of Manhattan and win. Why? As an organist, he was fired unjustly before the term of his contract expired by a gay and homophobic priest. He won the case. (This was before me met 14 years ago) The church tried to do everything to stop him from going to court, even calling him the night before, repeatedly, to 'settle the matter'. These kinds of things can get pretty ugly. Proving the motto: Look before you leap.
Wow, Rick, it hurt me to read your story. I hate that I've heard others like it. I hope you have supportive counsel around you, that's a lot to go through.
Meantime, I agree with Nathan. I think it would be an overwhelming PLUS for everyone involved if they would agree to apologize publicly and re-instate your credentials. In prayer and humility, pursue that if you can. YOU should not be ashamed, THEY should be! And they have the obligation to replace your shame by their blessing, even as Christ would do...
That being said, you probably won't find a person more skeptical and distrusting of religions/denominations/religious authorities than me...If they refuse the Law of Christ, sue the hell out of 'em :)
Keep us updated and the Lord be with you!
Thanks for the comments so far! I agree that jumping into some big legal hassle simply because I've experienced injustice could be foolish. I'm still trying to wrap up a messy divorce, so I have NO desire for more (or likely worse) or the same. Since the denominational leaders (along with the bishop) clearly acted to protect themselves (and I believe have a 'no contact' policy re: me), I'm not nec. hopeful that conversation or an apology - let alone restoration of credentials (which I might choose to immed. surrender, but under MY terms) is possible. The tricky part is that I have this info about the bishop (confirmed by several persons including her closest friend, a gay clergyman in the same denomination) that would result in her losing her position if publicly known. I don't really want to resort to threats, and when it comes right down to it, I'm not sure I could provide the 'proof' to nail her on it.
On the other hand, I'd think the bishop and others would be anxious to do what is right if it meant my not coming forward with my story in a way damaging to their power and position.
So I'm still thinking about it. I think I'll speak privately with some of the gay-affirming higher-ups in the denomination within the region. Thankfully I maintain many good friendships there.
Any other insights would be welcome.
By the way, I've been reflecting lately on the supreme irony of a religious system that punishes honesty and rewards deceipt.
Don't involve lawyers
I believe that you and I met in 2004. Knowing your denomination, the likelihood of any openly gay person having ministerial credentials restored is zero. A lawyer would have to tell you whether you could successfully sue for money, but I have serious doubts about that.
If what you really want is an apology and some sort of reconciliation with the Bishop, why not seek a non-legal meeting, perhaps with a mutually agreeable third party mediating.
Consider whether the Bishop did the "right thing," as painful as that may seem. If she is a closeted lesbian, as you say she is, she may have seen your attempt to be "ex-gay" for what it apparently was--a "phase" on the way to discovering who you really were. Perhaps she had some prejudice against you because you were "evangelical" and she is "progressive"--that would be unfortunate. Consider also that she was panicky in dealing with this issue because of her own concealed sexual identity.
I've always wanted to be a minister in the same denomination, but since the age of 20 I've been openly gay and I wouldn't have it any other way--so I've been excluded from the very beginning. I do not envy any of the clergy I know who have concealed their sexual orientation in order to remain in the ministry or even rise to the office of Bishop! That way is madness, from my perspective!
You are fortunate to be an openly-gay minister in the United Church of Christ--sometimes I regret never having shifted my allegiance to an LGBT friendly denomination where I could have entered the ordained ministry. I hope that eventually you will find more adequate employment in the UCC. Despite the UCC's alleged openness to LGBT clergy, I wonder if many aren't under-employed as you appear to be.
I think I know who this Bishop is. I don't know much about the rumors that she is lesbian, but I thought I heard she is taking early retirement due to "health concerns." Maybe she'll be more amenable to conversation and reconciliation once she is retired. I don't envy Bishops in our denomination--they are compelled to carry out the unjust laws passed by the General Conference--maybe another reason she's retiring, she can't take it anymore. How badly would the denomination treat her if she came out? Would they take away her pension? All the evidence is that she would be treated really badly.
The spiritual violence of our denomination against LGBT persons is really, really awful and getting worse. The Bishop, like you and I, is harmed by this spiritual violence. The only people who can change this are the delegates of General Conference--we need to change their hearts and minds.
Thanks Steven, I do remember you! (And by the way, I changed some of the terminology in my story to avoid people identifying what my denomination is - but maybe I didn't fool ya! ;-)
Anyway, I do appreciate your wise and gentle counsel.
Interestingly, the bishop has presented herself as anything BUT a progressive in this region. The conservatives love her because of her fiery evangelical ways.
Thanks for the reminder to be gentle with all people and to seek reconciliation above all things.
You know what happens when you assume...
Hey-- Please don't assume there is no homophobia in the UCC or that gay ministers are not harrassed/fired/hated/etc. I love the UCC but it is far from the promised land.
When you get to the level of church adminstration/politics that Rick has talked about, I have seen that IT's ALL THE SAME!! Orthodox, Liberal, Opus Dei, the Mafia...there are some sick people who ascend to the top in EVERY denomination! I think it's just the nature of organized religion.
Sure, there are more colleagues & layfolk you can be openly honest with in a denomination like the UCC, & more people to be openly understanding & supportive...but there are homophobes in sheep's clothing out there too.
About the UCC
Thanks for the admission about the UCC. I'm sorry to hear there is no "promised land" out there, but those of us affiliated with more oppressive denominations often hear triumphalistic claims from the UCC. Or when we complain about our denomination we are told "why don't you join the UCC?"
What bothers me even more, though, are the folks (often homophobic) who say, "why don't you start your own church." I just can't agree with that ecclesiology, or lack thereof. I do sincerely believe in the "mystical unity" of Christ's church--and I believe churchs that think they can turn Christ's church in to their church with their rules including their friends and excluding the people they are prejudiced against are betraying Christ.
I believe the Metropolitan Community Church is an expression of the Holy Spirit incuding LGBT people in Christ's church despite what other denominations are doing--but ultimately there must be a recognition that MCC is also a member of Christ's Church and should be welcomed into the ecumenical bodies and their members and clergy recognized to be as good as any other denominations.
Finally, I do like the message of the UCC's latest ad campaign--the UCC is speaking the truth that there are congregations that have "ejection pews" (figuratively speaking). I suppose there are some UCC congregations that have "ejection pews" too, but I still appreciate the message from the denomination, and hope that every local congregation would seek to live up to it.
I hope that my own United Methodist Church will one day live up to its motto of "Open hearts, open minds, open doors."
When the UCC approved a resolution in support of same-sex marriage, I sent a thank you note to the pastor of the UCC across the street from my apartment. I've never met the pastor, but I wanted to thank him for being part of a denomination that supported my people. I never heard a response from the guy, and later heard from someone else who had met him that he is a rather pompous gentleman and most likely would not support gay marriage. That's ok. At least he knows there are people in this town paying attention to what his denomination does, even if they don't attend his church.
Thank you notes are always charming
It has been weird since July '05 when the resolution was passed. The StillSpeaking ads have been rejected by a lot of major networks -- even by LOGO, the supposedly gay channel -- and it seems like some of those who supported the resolution ran and hid. None of this was predictable from my vantage point. When the resolution passed, I thought, "Good, now that we've got that out of the way, let's move toward educating on LGBT issues."
Economic pressure and threats of leaving the denomination (a few already have) has scared the heck out of the UCC it seems. The funny thing is, those of us who have been doing this work of gay inclusion for awhile (I have since 1992!), know that you lose a few and you gain a bit more. Currently there are a lot of congregations looking at or in the process of uniting with the UCC.
Still, when you try to talk openly about this, a chill falls over the room. Maybe local congregations need a lot of thank-you notes to help them understand that it's gonna be OK! :p
It's true - even the UCC is flawed by the issues and personalities that plague other churches. Here in conservative Western NY, most UCCs are middle-of-the-road on most issues, a few are VERY conservative, and a few are in the forefront of advocating for LGBT persons.
Ironically, in the church I am serving, race is a larger issue than sexual orientation. I think of sexual orientation as the 'last frontier' re: prejudice, so that's been a big surprise. When the church that hired me did so knowing I am gay, I figured I was all set. The fact that I had just started dating an African American man (a personal matter I did not share with the search committee) seemed irrelevant to me at the time. Now a year later we are fully committed to one another, and I am much more aware of the deep-rooted racism in the congregation and community I serve. I've watched the two African Americans who've wandered into the church in the last year get the full 'ejector-seat' treatment. Meanwhile I have been gradually introducing my partner to the church and in a short while he will be fully known as my partner. What I'm finding is that many of the people are in denial about my orientation (or wasn't listening when I was introduced), so 'meeting the bf' is a double shock. The inner-city neighborhood I serve is an island of white hold-outs surrounded by a large, poor, drug-infested African American community (our neighborhood is also poor with drug problems, but it remains vigilantly 98% white.) My partner is a sweet, gentle, smart, committed Christian with a gift for music and working with kids. He is also a school teacher and more educated and affluent that 95% of the congregation (which I'm starting to realize could be resented.) I'm not willing to hide my relationship with him (in fact, I turned down a larger suburban church because they waffled re: my orientation). My concern is that the church's response to him - and my need to have employment and thus the temptation to appease the congregation to a certain extent - will put a strain on our relationship. If they reject him and I need to leave, I imagine that will make finding another position more difficult. I was the first openly gay man hired in the UCC in this part of the state - folks are watching to see if it works out or not. Any prayers about this would be appreciated!
I lived in Buffalo for 3 years while I went to law school. I remember it being very divided along race and class lines -- I know exactly what you are talking about. I've lived in a few places where race and class is an issue (NYC and now here in Georgia), but for some reason Buffalo seemed to suffer from division in a more extreme way than any other place I've lived. I'm not a sociologist, so I can only surmise the reasons. I wasn't very happy living in Western NY, but I sure enjoyed the easy access to Toronto, which I thought was a fabulous city.
My prayers are with you. :love: I hope that your bf will be fully accepted into your church, and that both of you will be welcomed with the grace and love you so richly deserve. :) :pray:
I wish you the best. One thing that is like a breath of fresh air is a church like yours that faces its reality and blooms where it is planted. I can imagine walking in to that congregation 5 years from now and feeling like it's a piece of paradise. I hope the growth and attention to process brings you to a healthy place. :love:
Organized religion (church) is imperfect because of the humans involved. But without the humans, there is no need for organized religion at all. It is frustrating to deal with, especially in a situation where one expects more acceptance and progression (such as UCC). And it gets tiresome to have the choice to accept imperfection (at least we have civil union, at least we have some churches that seem to accept GLBTs, at least we have blah blah blah) or the choice to accept nothing (we have nothing). I don't have the answers tonite but these posts are contemplative for sure...
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