NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A lesbian minister was defrocked Monday by the highest court within the United Methodist Church, which found that she violated the denomination's ban on "self-avowed, practicing homosexual" clergy.
The decision is a victory for traditionalists in one of several mainline Protestant denominations split over the role of gays and lesbians in the church.
The UMC's nine-member Judicial Council — seven of whom heard the case Thursday in Houston — issued the ruling through its Web site. The denomination's communications office is based in Nashville.
A church panel decided in December that the Rev. Irene "Beth" Stroud, 35, by being in a lesbian partnership, engaged in practices that are incompatible with Christian teachings. The panel's decision was overturned by an appeals committee, but the Judicial Council has now backed the original ruling.
Stroud's representatives had argued that taking away her clergy credentials because she's a lesbian amounts to discrimination.
The Judicial Council ruling says the church does not discriminate based on sexual orientation: Gays and lesbians are allowed to become Methodist ministers, but they must remain celibate.
Stroud "could be welcomed back with both arms," United Methodist Church counsel Thomas Hall said. "But she'd have to be celibate." Stroud had acknowledged that the relationship between herself and her female partner was sexual.
Stroud, who became an associate pastor at Philadelphia's First United Methodist Church of Germantown in 1999, has said she never revealed her sexual orientation in documents related to her ordination but didn't keep it a secret, either.
She said she decided to come out in 2003 because she felt she was being held back in her faith by not sharing the complete truth about her life. A complaint was filed against her last year.
"I thought I was prepared for anything, but still the news came as a blow," Stroud said in a phone interview Monday. "It's a sad day for me and for my family and for my congregation and, I think, a sad day for the United Methodist Church."
Eight council members voted to defrock Stroud; one council member was absent. Two members — Beth Capen and Susan T. Henry-Crowe — wrote a separate statement saying they felt badly about the result.
"We do not disagree with the legal analysis of our colleagues, although we deeply regret the outcome," they wrote. "While the Judicial Council must be faithful to its charge from the church we are also sensitive to the hurt, pain and brokenness of the family of God."
Mark Tooley, program director for The Institute on Religion and Democracy, an advocacy group for conservative mainline Protestants, said he was not surprised by the ruling.
"The council has enforced the church's teachings on marriage and sexuality," he said, "and it looks like it will continue to do that even though some regional bodies will attempt to circumvent a clear meaning of church law."
Hall said the decision provides some relief for the church, but is "not the end of this whole conversation."
"An issue like this takes so much energy on both sides, and takes the focus off a lot of the great things the church is doing," Hall said. "This gives us some space so we can hopefully channel our energies into the great things we're doing." The UMC is the nation's third-largest denomination.
Stroud held a news conference Monday outside her church in Philadelphia and was joined by her partner, Chris Paige. The two recently celebrated the five-year anniversary of their commitment ceremony.
"We've spent about half of our married life in this judicial process. ... I'm just glad it's over," Paige said.
Stroud will continue as a lay staff member at her congregation, preaching, supervising children's and youth work and conducting pastoral visits. She told the congregation Sunday that she and Paige were applying to be foster parents.
Stroud said she would accept offers to speak at other churches that are open to homosexuals.
"I want to stay in relationship with people whose minds I might have an opportunity to change," she said. "We can't have any question or any denial about the fact that the United Methodist Church practices discrimination against gays and lesbian people."