Methodist church plans to split over gay marriage, clergy: church officials

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – The United Methodist Church plans to split into two denominations later this year, church officials said on Friday, a schism that follows years of contention over whether the church should end its ban on gay marriage and ordination of gay clergy.

The plan, if approved at the church’s worldwide conference in Minneapolis in May, would divide the third-largest U.S. Christian denomination into two branches: a traditionalist branch that opposes gay marriage and the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy, and a more tolerant branch that will allow same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy.

The split would affect the denomination globally, church leaders said. The United Methodist Church lists more than 13 million members in the United States and 80 million worldwide.

The U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the nation in 2015, but that decision applies only to civil, not religious, services. Some denominations, including the Episcopal Church and certain branches of Judaism, have sanctified same-sex unions, while others including the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention, have declined to do so.

A council of Methodist bishops in Washington, D.C. called Friday’s move the “best means to resolve our differences.”

New York Conference Bishop Thomas Bickerton, part of the group that drafted the plan, said this was a way to reach an amicable separation.

“The protocol provides a pathway that acknowledges our differences, respects everyone in the process, and graciously allows us to continue to live out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by David Gregorio)

Pivotal Justice Kennedy poses tough questions in gay wedding case

Pivotal Justice Kennedy poses tough questions in gay wedding case

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared closely divided with likely pivotal vote Justice Anthony Kennedy posing tough questions about a Christian baker’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple but also questioning whether a Colorado civil rights commission that ruled on the issue was biased against religion.

The nine justices heard an intense, extended 80-minute oral argument in the major case on whether certain businesses can refuse service to gay couples if they oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

The case concerns an appeal by Jack Phillips, a baker who runs Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, of a state court ruling that his refusal to make a cake for gay couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig in 2012 on the basis of his religious beliefs violated a Colorado anti-discrimination law.

Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sides with the court’s four liberals in major cases, raised concerns about issuing a ruling siding with the baker that would give a green light to discrimination against gay people.

The court’s four liberals would likely side with him on that point, with several justices citing a wide range of other creative professionals, including makeup artists and florists, who could deny service to gay customers if the baker wins.

In one of the biggest cases of the conservative-majority court’s nine-month term, the justices must decide whether the baker’s action was constitutionally protected.

Phillips, represented by the conservative Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, contends that the Colorado law violated his rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The Supreme Court arguments focused on his free speech claim, based on the idea that creating a custom cake is a form of free expression.

Mullins and Craig call the baker’s refusal a simple case of unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation. Colorado law bars businesses from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation.

Kennedy, a long-term champion of gay rights, mentioned the possibility of a baker putting a sign in his window saying he would not make cakes for gay weddings, wondering if that would be “an affront to the gay community.”

But citing comments made by a commissioner on the state civil rights panel that ruled against the baker, Kennedy said there was evidence of “hostility to religion” and questioned whether that panel’s decision should be allowed to stand.

“Tolerance is essential in a free society. Tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual,” Kennedy said. But the commission was not “tolerant or respectful” of Phillips, he added.

The commissioner, unnamed in court papers, said at a 2014 hearing that “freedom of religion, and religion, has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history.” The commissioner added that freedom of religion “is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use … to use their religion to hurt others.”

It was unclear to what extent Kennedy’s criticism of the commissioner would dictate how he votes in the case.

The Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in a landmark 2015 ruling written by the 81-year-old Kennedy, one of the court’s five conservatives. He has joined the court’s four liberals in major decisions on issues such as abortion and gay rights, but also is a strong proponent of free speech rights. [L2N1LU1W9]

Mullins and Craig are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has argued that Phillips’ legal team is advocating for a “license to discriminate” that could have broad repercussions beyond gay rights.

Several of the justices asked questions that suggested they are concerned about how far a ruling in favor of the baker might extend. Liberal Justice Elena Kagan wondered about whether a hairstylist, chef or a makeup artist could refuse service, claiming their services are also speech protected by the Constitution. “Why is there no speech in creating a wonderful hairdo?” Kagan asked.

Kennedy asked U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the Trump administration lawyer supporting the baker, what would happen if the court rules for the baker and then bakers nationwide then started receiving requests to not bake cakes for gay weddings. “Would the government feel vindicated?” Kennedy asked.

Conservative members of the court, including Chief Justice John Roberts, appeared more sympathetic to the baker.

‘LOVE WINS’

Hundreds of demonstrators on both sides of the dispute rallied outside the white marble courthouse. Supporters of Phillips waved signs that read, “We got your back Jack.” As Mullins and Craig made their way into the courthouse, the two men led their supporters in chants of “Love Wins.”

After the arguments, Phillips told reporters that the backlash against his business after his refusal has included death threats and harassment, adding, “We are struggling just to make ends meet and keep the shop afloat.”

“It’s hard to believe that the government is forcing me choose between providing for my family and my employees, and violating my relationship with God,” Phillips said.

Mullins told reporters the couple’s snub by Phillips made them feel mortified and humiliated, like “second-class citizens in our society.”

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found that Phillips had violated anti-discrimination law and ordered him to take remedial measures including staff training and the filing of quarterly compliance reports. The baker lost appeals in state courts before asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Top court weighs baker’s refusal to make cake for gay couple

Top court weighs baker's refusal to make cake for gay couple

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday began hearing arguments in a major case on whether certain businesses can refuse service to gay couples if they oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds in a dispute involving a conservative Christian baker in Colorado who declined to make a wedding cake for two men.

The nine justices opened a scheduled hour of arguments in an appeal brought by Jack Phillips, a baker who runs Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, of a state court ruling that his refusal violated a Colorado anti-discrimination law.

In one of the biggest cases of the conservative-majority court’s nine-month term, the justices must decide whether the baker’s action was constitutionally protected, meaning he can avoid punishment under the Colorado law.

Phillips contends that law violated his rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The Supreme Court arguments will focus on his free speech claim, based on the idea that creating a custom cake is a form of free expression.

The couple, David Mullins and Charlie Craig, call the baker’s refusal a simple case of unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in a landmark 2015 ruling written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, one of the court’s five conservatives. The 81-year-old Kennedy, who has joined the court’s four liberals in major decisions on issues such as abortion and gay rights, could cast the deciding vote. Kennedy also is a strong proponent of free speech rights.

A ruling favoring Phillips could open the door for businesses that offer creative services to spurn gay couples by invoking religious beliefs, as some wedding photographers, florists and others already have done. Conservatives have filed other lawsuits also seeking to limit the reach of the 2015 gay marriage ruling.

Hundreds of demonstrators on both sides of the dispute rallied outside the white marble courthouse. Supporters of Phillips waved signs that read, “We got your back Jack.” As Mullins and Craig made their way into the courthouse, the two men led their supporters in chants of “Love Wins.”

The case highlights tensions between gay rights proponents and conservative Christians who oppose same-sex marriage, as illustrated in comments made by demonstrators on Tuesday.

‘NOT HARMING OTHERS’

“Religious liberty is the most important right we have been given in the Constitution, and this case exemplifies it,” said Paula Oas, 64, a Maryland resident. “I believe Jack is not harming others.”

Sherrill Fields, 67, a lesbian Virginia resident, said she feared that if the court sides with the baker, different types of businesses will turn away gay customers.

“This kind of thing will come out of the woodwork,” Fields said. “People and businesses of all sorts will deny us service. Restaurants, hairdressers, doctors, tow truck drivers, anybody that provides a service.”

The legal fight broke out in 2012 when Phillips told Mullins and Craig that due to his Christian beliefs he would not be able to make a cake to celebrate their wedding.

The two men married in Massachusetts but wanted to celebrate their nuptials with friends in Colorado. At the time, Colorado allowed civil unions but not marriage between same-sex couples.

The couple turned to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a complaint on their behalf, saying Phillips had violated Colorado state law barring businesses from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission found that Phillips had violated the law and ordered him to take remedial measures including staff training and the filing of quarterly compliance reports. In August 2015, the Colorado Court of Appeals also ruled against Phillips.

The Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear the case, prompting Phillips to appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ACLU said Phillips’ legal team at the conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom is advocating for a “license to discriminate” that could have broad repercussions beyond gay rights.

“I can’t emphasize enough how far sweeping the argument is both in terms of what it is saying about the Constitution and who will be affected,” ACLU lawyer Louise Melling said.

Phillips’ lawyers said creative professionals should not be forced to engage in expression that goes against their conscience.

“If the court were to say it could force someone like Jack … to be coerced, then it has the power to force anyone of us to speak those same messages and to violate our convictions,” Phillips’ attorney Kristen Waggoner said.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Supreme Court’s cake case pits gay rights versus Christian faith

Supreme Court's cake case pits gay rights versus Christian faith

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When conservative Christian baker Jack Phillips in 2012 politely but firmly told Colorado gay couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig he would not make them a cake to celebrate their wedding, it triggered a chain of events that will climax on Tuesday in highly anticipated U.S. Supreme Court arguments.

Phillips contends the U.S. Constitution’s free speech guarantees protect him from making a cake that would violate his religious beliefs against gay marriage. To Mullins and Craig, the baker’s refusal represented a simple case of unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In one of the biggest cases of the conservative-majority court’s nine-month term, the justices — just two years after legalizing gay marriage — must decide whether Phillips’ action was constitutionally protected and he can avoid punishment for violating Colorado anti-discrimination law.

A ruling favoring Phillips could open the door for certain businesses to spurn gay couples by invoking religious beliefs, as some wedding photographers, florists and others already have done.

The brief encounter at Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver suburb of Lakewood left Mullins and Craig distraught. They filed a successful complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the first step in the five-year-old legal battle that the nine justices will resolve in a ruling due by the end of June.

The baker’s lawyers argue that because his cakes are artistic endeavors, guarantees of freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protect Phillips from being forced to make baked creations that express a message he opposes on religious grounds.

Mullins and Craig were planning their wedding in Massachusetts that September and wanted the cake for a reception to be held in Colorado, where gay marriage was not yet legal. Craig’s mother witnessed the tense exchange, which he said made it harder for him to bear.

“I ended up starting to cry because I felt really bad and overwhelmed that my mom had to see me go through this. I guess it was the feeling of helplessness,” Craig said in an interview.

Phillips said he offered to sell the couple other products in his store but was adamant that his religious beliefs compelled him to draw a line when it comes to certain issues.

‘I SERVE EVERYBODY’

“Everybody that comes in my store is welcome in my store,” Phillips said in an interview. “I serve everybody that comes in and I create products for many events, just not all events.”

Based on his Christian beliefs, Phillips said he also refuses to make Halloween cakes as well as baked goods “that denigrate other people.”

The civil rights commission found that Phillips violated state anti-discrimination law that bars businesses from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation. It ordered him to take remedial measures including staff training and the filing of quarterly compliance reports.

Phillips said he found the penalty “deeply offensive” in part because until recently his mother was one of his employees.

“I have to tell my mom, ‘Everything you have taught me doesn’t count here,'” Phillips said.

In 2015, the Colorado Court of Appeals also ruled against Phillips. The Colorado Supreme Court subsequently denied his appeal, prompting Phillips to take the case to the top U.S. court.

Evangelical Christians are an important part of President Donald Trump’s political base, and his administration filed a brief in support of Phillips.

The case puts 81-year-old Justice Anthony Kennedy, one of the court’s five conservative, in the spotlight. Kennedy, a potential deciding vote in a 5-4 ruling, has joined the court’s liberals in major decisions on issues such as abortion and gay rights. He authored the court’s landmark 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. But Kennedy is also a strong proponent of free speech rights.

CULTURAL FLASHPOINT

The case has become a cultural flashpoint in the United States that underscores the tensions between gay rights proponents and conservative Christians.

National advocacy groups have jumped in on both sides. Mullins and Craig are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. Phillips is represented by the conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.

Similar cases are being litigated in other U.S. courts, and other countries also are confronting the issue. In April, Britain’s Supreme Court will consider whether a Christian-run bakery in Northern Ireland can refuse to make a cake backing gay rights.

In this case and others involving such issues as abortion, union dues and campaign funding, conservatives have relied on free speech arguments before the Supreme Court, but the issue of religious liberty still looms large.

“This is about will the U.S. Supreme Court decide that the fundamental freedoms and liberties that Americans have taken for granted for 200 years are still valid,” said Phillips’ lawyer, Kristen Waggoner.

The ACLU said a ruling favoring Phillips could lead to other efforts to skirt anti-discrimination laws.

“They are asking for a constitutional right to discriminate,” ACLU lawyer Louise Melling said. “This is not a case about a cake. It is a case about a very radical proposition.”

Mullins and Craig did get to celebrate their marriage with a cake made by another bakery. Phillips will once again encounter them on Tuesday, this time in the grand marble halls of the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Anglicans penalize U.S. church over gay marriage to avoid schism

CANTERBURY, England (Reuters) – The Anglican Church has slapped sanctions on its liberal U.S. branch for supporting same-sex marriage, a move that averted a formal schism in the world’s third largest Christian denomination but left deep divisions unresolved.

The Anglican communion, which counts some 85 million members in 165 countries, has been in crisis since 2003 because of arguments over sexuality and gender between liberal churches in the West and their conservative counterparts, mostly in Africa.

Following four days of closed-door talks, the heads of the world’s 38 Anglican provinces said the liberal U.S. Episcopal Church would be barred for three years from taking part in decision-making on doctrine or governance.

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry told his peers at the talks that the decision would “bring real pain” but told them he was “committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family”, according to an Episcopal news website.

Anglicans are the world’s third-largest Christian denomination after Roman Catholics and the Orthodox.

Ahead of the talks, convened by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of Anglicans, some African primates had threatened to walk out unless “godly order” was restored, and there were widespread fears of a formal schism.

That was averted by the formal slap on the wrist for the liberal Americans, but early reaction suggested deep divisions would persist.

The head of the Anglican Church in North America, Archbishop Foley Beach, said the sanctions were “not strong enough”. The church he leads includes many conservatives who broke away from the Episcopal Church over its approach to marriage.

“This is a good step back in the right direction, but it will take many more if the Communion is to be restored,” Beach said in a statement after the meeting.

“ARCHBIGOTS”

But at Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of Anglicans where the talks took place, Welby was confronted by a group of about 40 African gay and lesbian Anglicans angry about the penalties against the Episcopal Church.

“You have been very much in my mind this week. I am aware of the difficulties you face,” Welby told the protesters, many of whom were bearing placards with slogans such as “Anglican Archbigots, shame on you”.

A Nigerian gay Anglican who gave his only his first name, Chijioke, said religious leaders on the continent should be focusing on issues such as bad government and poverty rather than obsessing about issues of sexual orientation.

“We have been made to feel that we are nobody. That is not what the Church should do. God created all of us,” he told Reuters just outside the cathedral.

Chris Bryant, a gay former Anglican priest who is a member of the British parliament for the opposition Labour Party, said on Twitter: “I’ve finally given up on Anglican church today after its love-empty decision on sexuality. One day it will seem as wrong as supporting slavery.”

The sanctions against the U.S. church prevent it from speaking on behalf of Anglicans on interfaith or ecumenical bodies and bar it from certain internal committees for a period of three years.

The statement from the primates said the Episcopal Church had caused deep pain and worsened mistrust within the communion by changing its canon on marriage to include same-sex couples.

In a broader communique released later on Friday, the primates also said that they “condemned homophobic prejudice and violence” and reaffirmed their “rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people”.

But such language was unlikely to placate liberals in the communion, which has also been dogged by disagreements over the ordination of women and openly gay men as bishops and priests.

(Additional reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)