By Sam Hodges*
The United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration has cautioned clergy who work for one of the denomination’s agencies that they could lose their credentials if they apply to extend church-funded health insurance benefits to a same-sex spouse or partner.
GCFA’s warning came after the board’s Oct. 21 decision to extend coverage in the General Agencies Welfare Benefits Program to same-sex spouses or partners of agency employees, provided the relationship is legally recognized by a state.
Some church agency leaders asked GCFA for more clarity, specifically regarding possible adverse consequences for clergy employees who enroll a same-sex partner for benefits.
The church’s official position, upheld at General Conference 2012 in Tampa, Fla., is that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. Church law excludes “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from the clergy and charges GCFA with making sure church funds are not used to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.
Statement lays out background
The request from agency leaders prompted Moses Kumar, GCFA’s top executive, to issue a warning statement that he said could be shared with agency employees.
That statement lays out the background of the decision to extend benefits, and then concludes: “This policy applies to both clergy and lay employees. However, if you are a clergy employee and you enroll a same-sex partner in the GAWBP (welfare benefits program), you should be cautioned that such an action may subject you to discipline under church law, including a possible loss of clergy credentials.”
In response to United Methodist News Service questions, GCFA declined to offer much more explanation but said it won’t be sharing its records on applicants. The agency did not respond to questions about whether any agency employees applied during the recent open enrollment period (Oct. 28 to Nov. 8) to have a same-sex partner or spouse covered.
The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits began in 2009 to allow coverage of same-sex partners in civil unions under the HealthFlex insurance plan it operates for some United Methodist annual conferences and other church-related organizations.
“As for same-sex marriages, the plan relies on the law of the state in which the participant resides for the definition of `spouse’ and `marriage,’” said Andrew Hendren, associate general counsel for the pension board. “In the latter case, the plan could conceivably cover the same-sex spouse of a clergyperson.”
He added that the pension board provides a warning to plan sponsors and participants that such a marriage “could result in consequences under the Book of Discipline,” the church’s law book.
“Generally, when enrolling a dependent in the HealthFlex plan administered by the GBPHB, a participant must disclose that desired enrollment to his or her plan sponsor, i.e., staff at the conference office, before the dependent is added to the GBPHB database,” Hendren said. “Participants in HealthFlex cannot self-enroll a spouse or other dependents. So, essentially a clergyperson has to disclose the marriage to his or her plan sponsor before enrolling in the GBPHB plan.”
Hendren added: “Once information is in the possession of the HealthFlex plan, however, it is considered protected health information under HIPAA (federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and cannot be disclosed or used for any purpose other than administration of the health plan.”
The opportunity for information to get out about a clergyperson’s application for benefits would seem to be small in the GCFA-administered program.
“Agency employees enroll for benefits in the General Agencies Welfare Benefits Program through an online HR (human resources) system,” said Sharon Dean, GCFA director of communications. “GCFA uses this enrollment information only for benefits administration, payroll and other business purposes.”
GCFA did not respond to a follow-up question about why Kumar issued the warning if GCFA controls the information about applicants and will use it only for business purposes.
Jim Winkler, who is finishing his term as top executive for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, believes Kumar’s warning underscores that clergy employees of agencies could be at risk.
“This situation simply underscores the awkward and untenable position in which the denomination finds itself,” he said. “Society has moved beyond the United Methodist Church’s discriminatory stance against same-sex partners. This comes down to an issue of justice and fairness for all our employees. We should not as a church utilize any subterfuge which could result in unnecessary actions against our clergy.”
Meanwhile, Good News, an unofficial United Methodist caucus that supports the church’s stand on homosexuality, remains critical of GCFA’s decision to extend benefits.
The move “appears to undercut the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality,” said the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News. “While it is one of our Christian values not to discriminate against persons because of their sexual orientation, it is even more important to remain faithful to the biblical teaching that defines marriage as the lifelong union between a man and a woman.”
Agency responses vary
As for the warning by Kumar that clergy employees who apply to cover same-sex partners or spouses could be putting themselves at risk, some agencies chose to share it, and some didn’t.
The United Methodist Board of Discipleship sent the message as received from GCFA, said the Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston, GBOD spokesman.
The United Methodist Board of Higher Education did not see the need to share Kumar’s warning.
“GBHEM’s Division of Ordained Ministry oversees the ordination process and all ordained clergy here are well aware of Discipline requirements,” said Terri Hiers, executive director of GBHEM’s Office of Interpretation.
With recent decisions in Hawaii, Illinois and New Jersey and New Mexico, there are now 17 states that have legalized same-sex marriage. Washington, D.C., has done so as well.
Judicial Council ruling sought
Bishop Mike Coyner, president of GCFA, earlier said the decision to extend benefits coverage to same-sex employees of church agencies “was taken in light of actions taken in states where same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships are now the law of the land.”
But GCFA also asked the Judicial Council, the denomination’s high court, for a declaratory judgment on whether its benefits extension violates church law.
“What concerns us is that moving ahead to implement same-sex spouse or partner benefits will make it very difficult for the Judicial Council to overturn them,” Lambrecht said. “It is easier to decide not to offer a benefit than to withdraw one that has already been offered.”
GCFA’s move to extend benefits drew support from Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus that seeks to change the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.
Some law professors said GCFA has taken a prudent course in extending benefits, given how cloudy the picture is regarding exemptions for religious groups from anti-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation.
The U.S. Senate recently passed such a measure, but the House is unlikely to take it up. So no blanket federal law applies.
Instead, said Michael Curtis, a law professor at Wake Forest University, religious groups must contend with various state and local anti-discrimination measures, offering a range of religious exemptions, from broad to narrow.
Of GCFA and its move to extend benefits, Curtis said: “Are they right that this is a cautious way to avoid litigation and problems? Probably so.”
Robin Fretwell Wilson, a University of Illinois law professor who has written and spoken on the issue of same-sex marriage and religious liberty, agreed.
She noted that some religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage and are operating in jurisdictions that have legalized it have chosen to withhold spousal benefits to all new employees.
In Wilson’s view, that’s unfair to new employees.
“If you don’t want to be litigating all the time, then being flexible, if your doctrine allows you, is not only a smart move but a good thing to do, for the human costs,” she said.
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com