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By Tricia L. Nadolny and Laura McCrystal, The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Frank Schaefer on Tuesday was reinstated as a Methodist minister by a church panel who found the Pennsylvania pastor was wrongly defrocked in December for officiating at his gay son’s wedding.

A committee of lay church members and clergy said Schaefer’s sentence unjustly required a promise to uphold the church’s laws in the future if he wished to receive back his ministering credentials at the end of a suspension.

“Our clergy can only be punished for what they have been convicted of doing in the past, not for what they may or may not do in the future,” the decision stated.

The committee, which heard Schaefer’s appeal Friday in Baltimore, upheld a 30-day suspension as Schaefer’s sentence for officiating at his son’s wedding. He has already served that suspension.

The decision could be pivotal for the denomination, where conservative groups have floated talk of a schism, saying the church’s laws are being flouted by disobedient ministers and leadership failing to hold them accountable. Schaefer’s case — which acted to polarize both sides of the gay rights divide within the church — could be appealed further to the church’s Judicial Council, its highest appeals body.

Schaefer, of Lebanon, Pa., 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 at a November trial in Chester County, Pa.

A month later, Schaefer’s ministering credentials were revoked when he rejected the options given to him by that jury: Promise to uphold the Methodist doctrines at the end of a 30-day suspension, or step aside.

Schaefer’s counsel objected to the sentence at Friday’s hearing, saying it attempted to hold him accountable for future actions and not the one with which he was charged: blessing a same-sex union. The Rev. Christopher Fisher, who prosecuted the case for the church, argued the 30 days acted as a “grace period” after which Schaefer’s real penalty was to be imposed.

In a statement, Schaefer called the decision “a hopeful sign.”

“Today’s decision shows that the church is moving toward love over legalism,” he said.

Meanwhile, support for a schism has increased among conservatives, with some saying the church cannot stay whole if one faction refuses to live by the church’s rules.

The committee’s decision stated that the outcome was based on the church’s laws, and not its members’ views of same-sex marriage.

Photo: sigmaration via Flickr

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