Pa. pastor faces church trial over gay marriage

The Rev. Frank Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pa., officiated his son's same-sex wedding in Massachusetts six years ago. WHP

SPRING CITY, Pa. - Supporters held signs and sang hymns on Monday outside of a church trial in southeastern Pennsylvania for a United Methodist pastor who could be defrocked for officiating at his son's same-sex wedding.

The Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon could face punishment ranging from a reprimand to suspension to losing his minister's credentials if a jury composed of fellow Methodist clergy convicts him of breaking his pastoral vows by presiding over the 2007 ceremony in Massachusetts.

 
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A Sept. 2013 photo shows The Rev. Frank Schaefer, right, with his son, Tim.
AP Photo/Schaefer Family
Jury selection began Monday morning at a Methodist retreat in Spring City, about 60 miles east of Lebanon.

The pastor told CBS Affiliate WHP that the church's Book of Discipline says United Methodist ministers are not allowed to marry homosexuals or to perform a union service for them.

"What I did was based on my conscience, even though it is against the church rules," Rev. Schaefer told correspondent Jesse Knutson.

Though not a common occurrence, church trials proceed just like any trial, with witnesses and evidence submitted.

"It just reads like an episode from 'Law and Order,'" Rev. Schaefer said. "There'll be a judge, there'll be a prosecution, there'll be a defense."

And a jury of his peers -- all United Methodist pastors.

"We're talking about the love of a father for his son, and I'm hoping that the jury will really hear that message. I did this for my own son in a state where gay marriage was legal at the time."

Several dozen of Schaefer's supporters had lined up outside the camp's gymnasium, where the trial is taking place, wearing rainbow stoles, holding signs and singing hymns.

"I'm in support of the church becoming a new church that welcomes everyone," said Bunnie Bryant, 64, of West Chester, who was holding a sign that said: "Law or love? Jesus chose love." She continued, "I question the church's law trumping a father's love."

But a pastor who's also attending the trial says Schaefer's trial isn't about gay rights, but rather his breaking of church law and his pastoral vows.

The Rev. Judy Kehler-Shirey, a retired Methodist minister who has attended Schaefer's church, said she personally disagrees with the church's policy on gay marriage but would not officiate a same-sex wedding.

"I have a vow that is connected to all the other United Methodist pastors internationally. We have a covenant to follow the (Book of) Discipline whether we agree with it or not," she said. "That has to take priority."

The nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination accepts gay and lesbian members, but it rejects the practice of homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching."

Frank Schaefer has said he informed his superiors in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference that he planned to officiate his son's wedding, and again after the ceremony, which took place at a restaurant near Boston.

The pastor said despite church rules forbidding him from doing so, he went ahead with officiating his son's 2007 wedding ""because I love him so much and didn't want to deny him that joy."

He said he faced no discipline until April -- about a month before the church's six-year statute of limitations was set to expire -- when one of his congregants filed a complaint.

Schaefer could have avoided a trial if he had agreed to never again perform a same-gender wedding, but he declined because three of his four children are gay.

Rev. Schaefer told WHP, "I'm nervous about the trial, but the outpouring of support from around the country has been so awesome, and I really take strength from that. And as I stand in the courtroom, I know that I won't just be representing myself, but I will be representing thousands of people in this country that want to see a change," he says.

The pastor can appeal a conviction, but neither the church nor the person who brought the charge may appeal an acquittal.

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