Lutheran Panel Votes to Expel Gay Minister

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007

A disciplinary committee of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ruled yesterday that a gay pastor in Atlanta must give up his pulpit, saying it was reluctantly enforcing a "bad policy."

Following a five-day church trial last month, seven of the committee's 12 members voted to remove the Rev. Bradley E. Schmeling, 44, from the clergy as of Aug. 15.

The committee set that date to give the denomination an opportunity to reconsider its policies on homosexuality at its next churchwide assembly, Aug. 6-12 in Chicago. Activists on both sides of the issue predict that Schmeling's case will stir vigorous debate at the Chicago session.

The 4.9 million-member ELCA allows gay men and lesbians to serve as ordained clergy as long as they remain sexually inactive. Schmeling formally notified his bishop last year that he was in a committed, monogamous relationship with Darin Easler, a former ELCA pastor who has since joined the United Church of Christ, which welcomes gay clergy. The bishop brought charges, leading to the trial.

"I feel hopeful that things aren't over," Schmeling said yesterday after the verdict was announced. "All I can do is keep doing what I've been doing, which is be the best pastor I can be and tell my own story with honesty and integrity."

In its 14-page opinion, the committee said a narrow majority of its members felt "compelled" to remove Schmeling under the church's current standards for clergy. But it said it was "nearly unanimous" that the rules "are at least bad policy, and may very well violate the constitution and bylaws of this church."

Parishioners at St. John's Lutheran Church, a 135-year-old congregation on the edge of Atlanta's historic Druid Hills neighborhood, have strongly supported Schmeling. Since he arrived as pastor in 2000, the congregation has grown steadily, while the ELCA as a whole has been shrinking. "We always knew he was gay, and we called him because he was the right pastor for us," said Laura Crawley, the congregation's president.

Like other mainline Protestant denominations, the ELCA has been debating homosexuality for years. In 2005, it rejected a proposal to maintain a ban on actively gay ministers but allow exceptions for those in loving, lifelong partnerships.

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