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Methodist Pastor Off The Hook

In the first case to challenge United Methodist policy on homosexual marriage, a pastor was found innocent Friday of disobeying church rules for performing a lesbian "unity ceremony."

The jury's decision could shape how the 9.5 million-member denomination interprets rules governing its treatment of gays.

Had he been found guilty by the jury of fellow ministers, the Rev. Jimmy Creech could have lost his position as senior pastor of Omaha's largest United Methodist Church and be stripped of his ministerial credentials.

The jury was made up of four women and nine men, all ministers from Nebraska.

Under church law, nine of the 13 jurors were needed to convict him of disobeying church law. Only eight found him guilty.

Jury foreman Grant Story said the vote reflected the difficulty the church has experienced with the issue.

"We have struggled, no, agonized together in a spirit of love and our hope is that United Methodists everywhere will receive our verdict in that same spirit of love and respect," Story said after the verdict was read.

The 53-year-old Creech conducted the same-sex commitment ceremony in Omaha in September. He was suspended from the leadership of his congregation in Omaha on Nov. 10.

Creech will be allowed to return to the pulpit Sunday morning.

Creech testified that he was simply serving the spiritual needs of two women church members.

The Rev. Loren Ekdahl of Lincoln, who argued the church's side, said Creech went wrong by conducting the ceremony as if it were an official rite. "We're not talking about a simple prayer or blessing here," he said.

In Creech's defense, the Rev. Douglas Williamson of Nebraska Wesleyan University argued that the church's Social Principles, amended in 1996 to prohibit "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions," are merely guidelines.
The Methodist case was being closely watched by gay rights activists and others.

"A decision against the church's rules will not alter the rules, but it certainly will raise the level of discussions in church circles," said the Rev. Bill Lawrence, a Duke University professor who studies U.S. Methodists.

Creech's backers included President Clinton's pastor, who testified Friday.

"We have to find a way to be supportive of these committed relationships," said the Rev. Phil Wogaman, pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. "The church also speaks in many voices."

Joe Leonard of the National Council of Churches, which represents 34 Protestant and Orthodox churches in the United States, said many congregations of various denominations are conducting same-sex ceremonies, "but often they have to do it in defiance of their denomination's policies."

The United Church of Christ is the only mainline Protestant church that appears to permit homosexual ceremonies, Leonard said. It also is the only major dnomination that permits the ordination of openly gay people.

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