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By Tricia L. Nadolny, The Philadelphia Inquirer

BALTIMORE — Frank Schaefer, defrocked by the Methodist Church after he officiated at his gay son’s wedding, is seeking to have his credentials reinstated at an appeal hearing Friday in Baltimore.

As he sat in the lobby of the hotel where his appeal is being held, Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pa., appeared calm but said he was battling an overwhelming nervousness.

If his plea fails, he could appeal to a higher committee of the United Methodist Church, but he said that would be an uphill battle and that he believes his future in the denomination could be decided during the next few hours.

“It’s been a long, long journey,” he said. “I’ve seen the ugly side of the church. I’ve seen the reconciling side of the church, the beautiful church.”

Schaefer’s case gained national attention — sparking a wider call for gay rights and thrusting the church toward a possible schism — when he was charged last year with breaking doctrinal law by officiating at his son Tim’s same-sex wedding in 2007 in Massachusetts. He was found guilty by a jury of his peers during a two-day trial held in November at a Methodist retreat center in Spring City, Pa.

The following month, he lost his ministering credentials when he rejected the options given to him by that jury: Promise to uphold the Methodist ban on officiating gay weddings, or step aside.

Regardless of the outcome of his appeal, Schaefer’s case has left its mark on the wider Methodist church, galvanizing activists on both sides of the gay rights debate.

Those calling for change of the church’s laws on same-sex weddings and openly gay pastors have embraced a stance of civil disobedience — what they call “biblical obedience” — leading to a surge of pastors openly defying the rules. Some bishops have showed their support by placing a moratorium on church trials, opening the door for pastors to officiate gay weddings without fear of reprisal.

In return, support for a schism has increased in conservative circles, with some saying the church staying whole is not realistic if one faction refuses to live by church rules.

The Methodist Church is one of many denominations grappling with the issue of gay rights. The Presbyterian Church on Thursday voted to allow ministers to bless same-sex weddings in states where they are legal.

A decision from the appeals committee, composed of clergy and lay members from the church’s northeast jurisdiction conference, could come any time in the next 20 days but is expected to be announced Saturday.

Schaefer said his appeal will focus largely on his sentence, which included a 30-day suspension and a requirement that he commit to not officiating gay weddings in the future.

“We feel that you can’t base a penalty on a promise,” Schaefer said Friday. “You’re getting punished for something you hadn’t committed yet.”

He could appeal legal issues from his trial but said he will not because he does not want to put his family through a retrial.

Photo: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

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