The African Methodist Episcopal Church, the United States’ oldest historically Black denomination, launched its General Conference on Tuesday with delegates expected to address racial issues such as voting rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.“Our church claims to have the issue of justice in its DNA,” Senior Bishop Adam J. Richardson Jr said. “It will come up in sermons, it will come up in reports.”The coronavirus pandemic forced a one-year delay in the five-day legislative gathering. And a planned simultaneous gathering in Cape Town for church representatives from several African countries had to be canceled after South Africa barred large gatherings due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.So the denomination, which has churches in numerous countries and is particularly strong in places such as South Africa, Liberia, Namibia and Zambia, is combining in-person events in Orlando, Florida, with members across Africa attending online either individually or in smaller groups.“It was extremely important to us to have that part of our church represented in our General Conference,” said Richardson, who is the longest serving active bishop in the church and whose district includes Florida and the Bahamas.The gathering opened with worship before getting down to business.President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were expected to address the members by video, and Florida Rep. Val Demings, an AME church member, was also scheduled to speak.The church traces its roots to 1787, when Black worshippers walked out of a segregated, white-run Methodist church and formed the AME, which also became a pioneer in ordaining women.One member, Ravi Perry, who is chair of the political science department at Howard University, is urging the denomination to build on that legacy at the conference by repealing its policy of opposition to same-sex marriage.The proposal follows similar debates in several historically white denominations. Some, such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church, have authorized their clergy to officiate same-sex marriages.“If any Black church is going to do this first, it’s going to be the AME Church,” Perry said. “My hope is the AME Church will remember its social inclusion roots.”The repeal faces uncertain prospects. A rules committee decides which legislation to bring to the conference floor this week, though delegates can seek to have additional matters considered.A 2016 policy statement says the denomination’s opposition to same-sex marriage is based on biblical interpretation. At the same time, it acknowledges that the AME has gay members in many of its congregations and says they are eligible for church office at all levels.Other Methodist denominations have confronted the issue.The United Methodist Church, which is also U.S.-based with a strong African presence, currently forbids same-sex marriages or ordaining gay clergy. But long-running divisions on those issues prompted a widely endorsed proposal to split the denomination, likely to be voted on in 2022.The Methodist Church in Great Britain, meanwhile, voted in June to allow same-sex marriages.Richardson said that while he doesn’t foresee an immediate repeal of the AME’s stance, he sees an evolution underway that mirrors trends in broader society — “the more we have families being supportive, and mothers and fathers who are standing with their children.”Delegates to the conference are also electing new bishops and other officers. Thabile Ngubeni of South Africa is urging delegates to “make history” by choosing her as the first African laywoman to serve on the church Judicial Council.And retiring Bishop Vashti McKenzie, who was ordained in 2000 as the first woman AME bishop, will be recognized for her leadership.“She has been able to do extraordinarily well in bringing administrative strength, spiritual strength and community development strength,” said Bishop Anne Henning Byfield, president of the AME’s Council of Bishops.The pandemic, which claimed the lives of numerous AME members and ministers, continues to be at the forefront of delegates’ minds. Attendance in the Orlando meeting hall will be limited, with masking and other health precautions in place.Richardson, who said he has conducted more funerals in the last year than ever before, said church officials will continue to urge people to get vaccinated. And the surge in South Africa is a reminder that many countries are still deep in the pandemic.“People are still dying,” Richardson said. “It really is serious.”John Thomas III, editor of the Christian Recorder, the AME’s official news outlet, said the pandemic forced the denomination to go on an austerity budget but overall it has weathered the storm well.“What we’ve seen is that people are very loyal to the church and community,” Thomas said. If a church was already “doing the community work and engagement before the pandemic, all you had to do was pivot.”———Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
Justice Samuel Alito called it a “wisp” of a decision — a Supreme Court ruling Thursday that favored Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia but was far from the constitutional gale wind that would have reshaped how courts interpret religious liberty under the First Amendment.Still, there was a shift.Governmental entities are now on notice that if they want to ban discrimination against LGBTQ persons or anyone else, they must not allow for any exceptions, or else religious groups will have the right to ask for them and they’ll have a strong case for getting them.The high court’s ruling involved Philadelphia’s decision to stop referring children for foster placement to Catholic Social Services after learning in 2018 that the local agency wouldn’t certify same-sex couples as foster parents.The city said the agency violated its requirement that contractors not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Catholic Social Services had unsuccessfully argued in lower courts that it should be exempted under its religious belief that marriage is solely between a man and a woman. Also, it noted there were more than 20 other agencies that would work with same-sex couples.A decades-old Supreme Court precedent says that if a government policy applies to everybody, religious groups can’t claim an exemption even if it conflicts with their beliefs.But in Thursday’s majority opinion, the court noted that Philadelphia’s contract with foster agencies allowed the human services commissioner to make exceptions to its non-discrimination law.“Where such a system of individual exemptions exists, the government may not refuse to extend that system to cases of religious hardship without a compelling reason,” the court said, adding that the city doesn’t have a compelling reason to deny the Catholic agency an exception.University of Louisville law professor Samuel Marcosson, who focuses on constitutional law and LGBTQ rights, said the ruling will put governments in “what may sometimes be a difficult decision whether to make their policies absolute.”Their dilemma will be whether to “sacrifice the flexibility to make exceptions that make sense to achieve important policy goals, or allow those exceptions to become much broader in practice than the government would like since religious groups would be able to take advantage of them,” Marcosson said.While all nine justices agreed with the decision, Alito and two others wanted to go further. They urged the court to reconsider the 1990 precedent it’s based on: Employment Division v. Smith, which held that Oregon’s drug prohibitions applied to everybody, even those using them for religious ceremonies.Alito was not alone in predicting that if Philadelphia removes its no-exceptions stance, that won’t resolve things. The case, or a similar one, could come before the court again soon.“It’s not going to work if Philadelphia tries to come within the ruling by taking away all their discretion granting exemptions,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and specialist in constitutional law.He said that under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court’s direction is so predictable that if it takes such a case, the religious party will win. If a religious party would likely lose, the court wouldn’t take the case in the first place, he said.“What you have is a historical moment in the court’s history,” he said. “The majority feels for whatever reason that religious liberty is threatened, and they’re going to uphold religious liberty.”Indeed, a recent study tracking cases before the Supreme Court found that it has overwhelmingly sided with religious petitions, and that whereas past cases often focused on the rights of religious minorities, recent decisions have favored mainstream Christian groups.Thursday’s decision shows the “court’s extraordinary support for religion,” said Lee Epstein, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of the study.Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which represented two organizations that intervened in the case to seek equitable treatment for LGBTQ families in Philadelphia’s foster system, said the ruling has a silver lining: The majority opinion does not question Philadelphia’s right to ban discrimination in its foster care system.“We’re disappointed for the families and children of Philadelphia,” Roper said, but glad that the court didn’t allow Catholic Social Services “to remake the foster care system under their own beliefs.”Roman Catholic Archbishop Nelson Perez of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is affiliated with Catholic Social Services, applauded the ruling, saying it “makes it abundantly clear that religious ministries cannot be forced to abandon their beliefs as the price for ministering to those in need,” he said.But not all religious voices were supportive.“The Catholic hierarchy may think that they have achieved a stunning victory,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBTQ Catholics. “In fact it is a crushing defeat for the Catholic values of equality, respect and human dignity of all people.”M. Currey Cook of Lambda Legal, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, said the case would look different if there were evidence of the Catholic agency’s policies’ impact on LGBTQ couples or children.“When confronted with such facts in a future case,” Cook said, “the court will have to grapple for the first time with the ways such discrimination harms the foster children whose needs and best interests must always be paramount in child welfare cases.”———Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.