The Alabama Supreme Court unanimously upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought by 48 Methodist churches across Alabama against the United Methodist Church (UMC) on Friday.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Brooke Reid originally dismissed the lawsuit in November, seeking a vote to disaffiliate with the UMC and retain church property amid global turmoil within the denomination.

The case is one of many brought against the UMC recently after UMC’s Alabama West Florida Conference (AWF) changed the rules in its “Book of Discipline” in 2023, adding additional requirements for local congregations to vote to disaffiliate from the UMC while still retaining church property. The rule change came after a mass exodus of UMC churches over a shifting view within UMC leadership related to homosexuality and homosexual clergy.  

The Alabama Supreme Court upheld Reid’s dismissal on Friday because the lawsuit centers around “ecclesiastical questions.”

Because exercising jurisdiction over this case would entail resolving a dispute on the basis of religious practice or doctrine, we affirm the trial court's judgment dismissing the suit.

Associate Justice Tommy Bryan wrote in his opinion, “By enacting ¶ 2553, the UMC allowed churches the opportunity to leave the UMC and retain their property if they were to leave "for reasons of conscience"; the churches had a certain period to make their decision. Deep into that period, the Conference adopted a new requirement -- one not explicitly contained in the Book of Discipline -- making it more burdensome for churches to leave.” 

“There is something extremely unsettling about changing the rules during the course of the game. I question whether this process was fair. However, as noted, we simply do not have the jurisdiction to decide this matter,” he added.

Associate Justice Greg Cook wrote, “I write separately to express my sympathy for the predicament faced by the churches in this case. In particular, I am concerned by the churches' claim that the Conference unfairly engineered the disaffiliation process to prevent their departure from the UMC.”

“Although I sympathize with the fairness concerns raised by the churches, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (and our existing caselaw) leave this Court with no choice but to deny their request for relief. Instead, the only remedy for the conduct alleged by the churches in this case must come from the members of the Judicial Council, the UMC's ecclesiastical tribunal (that is, its own judicial system), guided by their faith, consciences, and the principles of Biblical justice,” he added.

The lawsuit ruled on by the Alabama Supreme Court on Friday is separate from a lawsuit brought by Dothan’s Harvest Church that is still being litigated.

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