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A Utah law outlawing abortion threatens the religious and free-speech rights of United Methodists, according to officials of the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church, who plan to file a "friend of the court" brief supporting Utah plaintiffs who are challenging the law in court.

Lynn Garst, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Conference Board of Church and Society, which represents United Methodist churches in Utah, Colorado and southern Wyoming, made the announcement at a Saturday press conference."This (law) represents the establishment of a state religion," Garst said, adding that the law parallels the position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on abortion.

The American Civil Liberties Union is backing a class-action suit filed by Utah women, clergy and doctors. It contends that the state law is unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

U.S. Magistrate Ronald Boyce recently said he saw no need to cross-examine 25 plaintiff's witnesses and 17 defense witnesses who have submitted written testimony in advance of the trial.

Boyce recommended that only one witness, Dr. Kenneth Ward, be allowed to testify. Ward is a witness for the ACLU. Testimony from the other 24 witnesses is unnecessary because it has little bearing on the legal questions regarding the law, Boyce said.

Boyce's written comments are a recommendation. It is up to U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene to decide whether there is a trial, or whether he will rule on the law's constitutionality without a trial. If there is a trial, Greene also can decide which witnesses will testify and how long the trail will last.

Garst said United Methodists are distressed by Boyce's recommendation. The Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church will file a friend of the court brief if the matter reaches an appellate court, he said.

Garst also said the 1991 law threatens the sanctity of pastor-parishioner counseling.

"We feel our clergy would be liable for prosecution under this law if they counsel a woman to have an abortion," he said. "This could dramatically effect the relationship between the pastor and parishioners to the point of people having to make the decision potentially to go to jail for their beliefs."

The United Methodist Church supports the right of a woman to make her own decision regarding abortion "after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral and other appropriate counsel."

The Rev. Max Glenn, executive minister of Shared Ministry, a group that represents six Protestant denominations, said the intent of the law is to "codify the position of the dominant Mormon religion on this issue."

Glenn termed any dismissal of religious leaders from the legal proceedings "an affront to all religious leaders."

Also supporting Garst were the Rev. Tom English, senior pastor at Christ United Methodist Church, and the Rev. David Randle, a minister in the United Church of Christ.