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Lesbian pastor is acquitted in church trial

Rev. Karen Dammann, a lesbian Methodist pastor, is congratulated by some of her parishioners after being acquitted in a church trial over her sexual orientation.
Rev. Karen Dammann, a lesbian Methodist pastor, is congratulated by some of her parishioners after being acquitted in a church trial over her sexual orientation.
Dean Rutz, Associated Press

BOTHELL, Wash. — A lesbian Methodist pastor was acquitted Saturday in a church trial over her sexual orientation and will be allowed to continue her ministry.

After about 10 hours of deliberations, a jury of 13 pastors ruled in favor of the Rev. Karen Dammann, 47, who disclosed three years ago that she was in a homosexual relationship. Two pastors were undecided, and the rest found her not guilty.

Dammann said she was happy and relieved. "It's been heart-stopping at times, too exciting at times," she said.

Even the pastor who served as the prosecutor in her case and the bishop who filed the initial complaint against her said they were pleased with the verdict.

Church law prohibits the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals, and the church's Book of Discipline declares homosexuality to be "incompatible to Christian teachings." But the church's social principles support gay rights and liberties.

The jury issued a statement saying the church "did not present sufficient clear and convincing evidence to sustain the charge."

"We realize that the church is divided regarding issues related to homosexuality," the jury said in its statement. "We, the Trial Court, are far from unanimous regarding biblical and theological understandings."

The jury said it made its decision "after many hours of painful and prayerful deliberations and listening for and to the word of God."

Dammann has been on leave as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg, 95 miles east of Seattle. This month she married her partner of nine years, Meredith Savage, in Portland, Ore., where officials have been allowing gay marriages. They have a 5-year-old son.

The ruling means Dammann is in good standing with the church and available for new assignments. Dammann said her immediate plans are to continue caring for her son, who has a respiratory illness, but she hopes one day to return to the Ellensburg church.

About 100 people attended a prayer service immediately after the verdict was announced. The Rev. Rody Rowe, pastor of Queen Anne United Methodist Church in Seattle, told the gathering they could pray silently or voice their thoughts.

After a long silence, one woman said, "I pray for our church, for those who will rejoice and for those who will gnash their teeth and wail."

Dammann did not testify at her three-day trial at Bothell United Methodist Church in this Seattle suburb.

In closing arguments Friday, her church counsel, the Rev. Robert C. Ward, asked jurors to adhere to church principles on inclusiveness and justice, not to the letter of church rules.

"We need to be careful about creating rules that exclude people," Ward said. "You are faced with a choice to make love practical, to make love plain, and to do what is right."

The Rev. James C. Finkbeiner, who prosecuted the case, argued that Dammann, by her own admission, is a practicing lesbian and that was all the jury needed to consider to find her guilty.

After the verdict, Finkbeiner said he believed the jury overstepped the bounds of church law. "And I don't feel bad about that. Our process is fair."

Then, with permission from Methodist Bishop Elias Galvan, Finkbeiner spoke for himself, adding, "I'm glad I lost, on a personal basis."

The trial is the first against a homosexual Methodist pastor since 1987, when the credentials of the Rev. Rose Mary Denman of New Hampshire were revoked.

Dammann declared her sexual preference in February 2001, when she sought a new church appointment. After receiving her letter, Galvan, under church orders, filed a complaint against Dammann.

The United Methodist clergy of the Pacific Northwest Conference voted to retain Dammann, but the Judicial Council of the Nashville, Tenn.-based denomination reversed that decision last fall. A church committee voted to put Damman on trial in January.

Galvan said the trial was painful for him because he respects and admires Dammann.

"I think the jury was looking for a way to be faithful to the Book of Discipline and I think they did that," Galvan said. "As soon as she's able to return to ministry, we'll welcome her and appoint her."