PC(USA) GAPJC Decisions -- Presbytery of Newark v McNeill

This was a busy and significant week for the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). A week ago they heard three significant cases and earlier this week issued their decisions. I am going to take these individually because of the importance of each one and taking them in order of their case number hoping to have all three finished by the end of the weekend.

Disciplinary Case 221-02: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through Presbytery of Newark, Appellant (Complainant) v. Laurie McNeill, Appellee (Accused)

This decision includes three concurring opinions and a dissent.

The GAPJC decision gives a good summary of the origins of this disciplinary case:
On October 17, 2009, McNeill, a minister of the Word and Sacrament, Pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC(U.S.A.)), and member of Presbytery, was married under the state law of Massachusetts to Ms. Lisa Lynn Gollihue. The ceremony took place at Christ Episcopal Church in Harwich Port, Massachusetts, and was officiated by a minister of the United Church of Christ and two priests of the Episcopal Church, according to a modified marriage rite from the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.
Upon the announcement of the marriage a complaint was filed with the presbytery, an investigating committee was formed and TE McNeill was tried on two charges:
Charge 1: You, Laurie McNeill, on or about October 17, 2009, did commit the offense of  participating in a same-sex ceremony, in which two women, namely yourself and Lisa Lynn  Gollihue, were married under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in violation of W-4.9001 of the Book of Order, and thereafter representing to your then congregation and others that such ceremony was a "marriage" all in violation of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Charge 2: You, Laurie McNeill, during the period beginning at least as early as October 17, 2009 and continuing until the date hereof, did commit the offense of being involved in a relationship described as a "happy marriage" with Lisa Lynn Gollihue, a person of the same sex as yourself, in violation of G-6.0106(b) of the Book of Order, in failing to live a life either in fidelity in marriage between a man and a women [sic] or chastity in singleness, all in violation of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 
You will note that the charges were filed under the previous Form of Government and before G-6.0106(b) was changed.

The Presbytery PJC acquited her on both charges and on appeal the Synod PJC concurred. The case was then appealed to the GAPJC.

The GAPJC consolidated the 32 specifications of error by the SPJC down to 11 specifications. For the sake of space I will be consolidating a bit further and summarizing the specifications. None of the errors were sustained by the GAPJC.

The first error addresses the Directory for Worship and the definition of marriage in W-4.9001 and the second error addresses the SPJC determination "that the Constitution of the PC(U.S.A.)  does not regulate the conduct of ordained officers of the PC(U.S.A.) in services conducted outside the auspices of the PC(U.S.A.)."

While the present decision does not reference the Southard decision at this point, part of that decision does reflect on this:
This Commission further held in Spahr, for prospective application, "that the liturgy should  be kept distinct for the two types of services." In light of the change in the laws of some states, this Commission reiterates that officers of the PCUSA who are authorized to perform marriages, when performing a ceremony for a same-gender couple, shall not state, imply, or represent that the same-gender ceremony is an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PCUSA polity, whether or not the civil jurisdiction allows same-gender civil marriages.
In response to these two specifications of error the present decision says:
The Directory for Worship "...sets standards and presents norms for the conduct of  worship in the life of congregations and governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)." In this case the service of worship did not occur in a PC(U.S.A.) church nor was it conducted under the auspices of the PC(U.S.A.); therefore, the Directory for Worship does not apply.  The Constitution is silent regarding the marriage of an officer of the PCUSA in civil marriage ceremonies.  Further, Scripture and Confessions were not argued as part of the trial record and, therefore, could not be considered on appeal.
Note that there are two circumstances that combined brought this ceremony outside of the established legal precedent for the PC(USA) — First, is that it was not "conducted under the auspices of the PC(U.S.A.)" and the second was that prior decisions involved those that preformed the ceremonies not simply participate in them. Since this ceremony was only connected to the PC(USA) in that a teaching elder in the PC(USA) was one of the individuals getting married under a narrow reading of the Directory for Worship and previous decisions they would not apply in this case. This rational also applies regarding specification of error number four not being sustained.

The third specification of error said that it is a violation of the Constitution to describe this relationship as a marriage to which the GAPJC points out "The stipulated facts from the record reflect that, although Appellee did describe herself as married, she made it clear that the PC(U.S.A.) did not recognize her marriage."

The fifth and sixth errors were regarding G-6.0106b — what constitutes a violation of it and when it should be applied. In the rational the decision says "the evidence did not support a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that McNeill committed an offense." In part, as one of the concurring opinions points out, this is a diplomatic way of saying that there was no evidence presented of sexual activity in this marriage.

But the decision leaves unanswered one part of the fifth specification of error where it says "The SPJC erred in determining  that it was not clear in what circumstance or to whom G-6.0106b applied and that G-6.0106b was only applicable in the context of an examination and, therefore, could not be enforced in a disciplinary process." Without answering if G-6.0106b was applicable outside the context of an examination they have affirmed that view in this case but do not give the church guidance for future cases. (And even though G-6.0106b is now in a different form in G-2.0104b it does raise an interesting question of the applicability of this or other specific standards for ordination in the Book of Order.)

The next three specifications of error address the applicability of Scripture and the Confessions in this case. These errors were not sustained because, as you can see in the charges above, the charges focused on the Book of Order provisions and did not include support by Scripture or the Confessions and support from these sources was not introduced at the original trial. The decision says:
Appellant charged Appellee for violating two specific provisions of the Book of Order. In the trial before PPJC, Appellants neither argued nor presented evidence of violations of Scripture or Confessions.  An appellate body cannot find that a trial court erred by not considering argument or evidence when neither the argument nor the evidence was presented to the trial court.  Further, it is impermissible for an appellate body to consider new arguments and evidence on appeal, except on application as set out in D-14.0502.  No such application was made in this case.  By not arguing or presenting evidence of violations of Scripture or Confessions at the trial level, Appellant waived making such arguments and presenting such evidence on appeal.
Finally, the last two errors suggest that the case was proved beyond a reasonable doubt but the GAPJC in their decision sides with the opinion of the PPJC that it was not.

Most of the rational is in the reply to the specification of charges but the GAPJC adds a bit of commentary in the formal decision section:
This case illustrates the tortuous place in which the PC(U.S.A.) finds itself on the matter of same-gender marriage.  Previous cases, which dealt with teaching elders officiating at such services, state that unions between same-gender couples, whether legally recognized or not, cannot be declared to be marriages under the current interpretation of W-4.9001.  Our Constitution, specifically this section of the Directory for Worship, did not anticipate the range of issues facing the church today surrounding same-gender relationships. In light of the number  of cases coming before this Commission and the convoluted grounds upon which cases are brought and decided, it would be beneficial for the church to provide a definitive position regarding participation of officers in same-gender ceremonies whether civil or religious. 
No errors were sustained, all appeals are exhausted and no PJC found grounds to affirm the charges against TE McNeill.

Now some other opinions in the matter.

The first concurring opinion, signed by three commissioners, takes the main and expands upon it saying that the General Assembly needs to supply clear guidance regarding same-sex marriage because of the spiritual and financial toll these cases are taking on the church.

The second concurring opinion, signed by two commissioners, is a bit more specific about discussing whether sexual activity could be addressed. The bulk of the opinion says:
There was no evidence of sexual activity here. Appellee entered into her civil marriage on October 17, 2009, when former G-6.0106b was in effect. Since PPJC refused to presume sexual activity, there was no evidence that G-6.0106b had been violated. While it is tempting to assume that "happily married" persons are engaging in sexual activity, it would be inappropriate to reach a guilty verdict exclusively on a presumption. See Wier v. Second Presbyterian Church, Minutes, 2002. Defendants in disciplinary cases are presumed innocent until proven guilty (D-11.0401), and have a right to remain silent. (D-10.0203c). If a rebuttable presumption of sexual activity were allowed, a defendant would have to waive the right to remain silent in order to rebut the presumption. The PPJC verdict was therefore supported by the evidence and was properly sustained by SPJC.
And in case you are thinking "does this really hinge on sexual activity" the answer is "yes" and you can refer to decision 220-01 White and Crews v. Session, St. Paul Presbyterian Church of San Angelo, Texas.

The third concurring opinion addresses the very narrow scope of the charges and the decision when it says that the Directory for Worship guides "congregations and governing bodies" but does not mention individuals. This opinion says, in part:
...Clearly the Directory for Worship does not reach to services of worship held outside of Presbyterian Churches without absurd consequences.  For example... Presbyterians may worship in churches that do not share our theology of the Word or the sacraments without being accused of an offense.
However, "the Directory for Worship reflects the conviction that the life of the church is one, and that its worship, witness, and service are inseparable. .... [I]t describes the theology that underlies Reformed worship."  (Preface, Directory for Worship)    Here is suggested an integrity of theology, worship, and life.

It is troubling that the Appellee in this case, by virtue of being a subject in a marriage ceremony held in a church over which the Directory for Worship has no jurisdiction, succeeded in doing for herself what she would be unable (under Spahr and Southard) to do for others, i.e., enter into a marriage that, while not recognized by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is legally recognized under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 

This Commission is bound by the charges brought by the Complainants/Appellants.  Therefore, this case is limited to considering the application of W-4.9001 and G-6.106b.  The Commission was restricted to these particular matters of polity and could consider neither Scriptural and Confessional arguments nor standards of pastoral accountability rooted in the Constitutional questions for ordination.   It is conceivable that, had the charges referenced Scripture and/or Confessions or the ordination question concerning the peace, unity, and purity of the church, the argument and outcome of this case may have been different. 
The dissent in this case is filed by two commissioners. This dissent takes issue with all of the underlying issues in this case and how they were viewed by the majority. It is not diplomatic about arguing for the presumption of sexual activity. It argues for the applicability of the Directory for Worship to the conduct of individuals:
[T]he argument that the Directory for Worship, which is an integral part of our Book of Order, does not provide grounds for which to regulate the conduct of our officers outside the context of worship, is also troublesome given that “This Directory for Worship reflects the conviction that the life of the Church is one, and that its worship, witness and service are inseparable.” (Preface). It also states in Section W-1.1005 that “a Christian’s personal response to God is in community” and that “the Christian community worships and serves God in shared experiences of life, in personal discipleship, in mutual ministry, and in common ministry in the world.” How can any officer of the church, or any member for that matter, separate his or her life as being within the church in part, and outside the church in part, or as was argued in this case, single in the eyes of the church and married in the eyes of the state?  Our life as Christians is integrally a part of the church, or as stated in W-1.1005, “A Christian’s personal response to God is in community”.
And finally, they argue for the applicability of G-6.0106b in this case.

There is one additional expression of dissent in this case beyond the GAPJC decision and it comes from a press release from Mauck & Baker, LLC, the law firm that worked with the prosecution throughout the case. In addition to expressing their disappointment they provide more details on their case and take issue with all the reasoning by the GAPJC majority in the decision.

Regarding the lack of admissibility of Scriptures and Confessions on appeal the press release says:
This is in clear distinction to the recent Davis case from 2009 in which a Presbyterian Teaching Elder was accused of viewing pornography on a church computer. There the charges were as unspecific as to what had been violated as in this case, citing the ordination vows generally, there being nothing at all in Scripture or the Constitution which addresses pornography.  Nevertheless the GAPJC had no trouble sustaining the conviction on the general grounds that viewing porn disturbed the peace, unity and purity of the Church.
I would first note that, unlike this case, in the Davis case (Decision 219-09) the charges on which the trial was held contained specific reference to Scripture (the Seventh Commandment as explained in the Confessions) and ordination vows (guided by the Confessions and furthering the peace, unity and purity of the church). I would also note that in the current decision I could find no reference to the Davis case.

But this press release is correct that in the Davis case G-6.0106b was cited in regards to prosecution based on standards in daily life and not just in the context of examination. The decision says:
The Book of Order and the Book of Confessions make it clear that church officers are to conduct themselves within certain limits. While there are few specific church-wide standards of proscribed conduct, (e.g., G-6.0106b), there are many aspirational statements in the church constitution for how church officers should behave. Notwithstanding the church’s preference to avoid a code of forbidden conduct, the church expects that the life and character of its officers be marked by adherence to Biblical and confessional principles.
The Davis decision later goes on to say
This Commission finds that a session or presbytery may determine whether one of its members acted or failed to act in a particular manner that “is contrary to the Scriptures or the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” (D-2.0203b)... The question before this Commission is this: “Was Davis’ use of pornography on a church computer a constitutional offense?” The governing body of membership first determines whether a church officer has departed from biblical and constitutional standards (G-6.0108b) and whether to impose a censure (G-11.0103n and r). The PPJC did make such determinations about Davis’ use of pornography. The SPJC affirmed that decision and this Commission concurs.

There are a number of other outlets that have expressed opinions on the outcome of this case including More Light Presbyterians, The Layman and the Covenant Network.

A couple of my thoughts on this case...

First, Detail Matter! From reading the GAPJC decision much of the outcome was related to the way the charges were drawn up and the trial conducted. Once the trial is concluded it is only under specific circumstances that additional arguments can be introduced.

I was reminded of the importance of details listening to the news this evening regarding insurance coverage for those affected by Superstorm Sandy earlier this week.  One important distinction relates to the cause of damage to your house. If you have rain or wind damage than standard homeowners insurance will cover it, but if the damage is due to flooding you better have special flood insurance. The second distinction regards the storm itself. If your homeowners insurance has the higher hurricane deductibles it matters if the storm that hit you was Hurricane Sandy or Superstorm Sandy.

In a way this decision came down to details and how the GAPJC decided to interpret the constitution. They could have applied G-6.0106b to manner of life similar to the Davis case, they could have interpreted the Directory for Worship to have had greater applicability to an individual's life and not just congregational worship, but they kept to narrow interpretations. As the one concurring opinion says, "It is conceivable that, had the charges referenced Scripture and/or Confessions or the ordination question concerning the peace, unity, and purity of the church, the argument and outcome of this case may have been different."

My second comment is the implication of that last quote: This was one case but because it was so tightly tied to the details I believe it has very little applicability and interpretive importance going forward. Those interested in prosecuting these cases know what does not work so clearly the roadmap now is to construct charges and prosecution strategy that includes Scripture, the Confessions and interpretation of the Directory for Worship that balances both the covenant community and the individual within it. Charges should have a theological depth like the Davis charges or the charges against Charles A. Briggs.

Enough on that for this evening. Next stop: San Francisco and the trust clause. While I think the McNeill case has a limited scope going forward I think the San Francisco decision presents us with the most important decision of the three this week. It is a decision that could have significant implications and broad applicability.  At least that is my read on it - your mileage may vary. Stay tuned...
  • No trackbacks exist for this post.
  • No comments exist for this post.
Leave a comment

Submitted comments are subject to moderation before being displayed.


 Email (will not be published)


Your comment is 0 characters limited to 3000 characters.