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US pastor faces church trial for son's gay wedding

The Rev. Frank Schaefer officiated his son's same-sex wedding "because I love him so much and didn't want to deny him that joy," but his decision to flout Methodist law could cost him his pastor's credentials as debate over gay marriage shakes up the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S.

The German-born Schaefer, 51, faces a church trial in Pennsylvania over charges that he broke his pastoral vows by performing the 2007 ceremony in Massachusetts. The United Methodist Church accepts gay and lesbian members but rejects homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching." Clergy who perform same-sex unions risk punishment ranging from a reprimand to suspension to defrocking.

The pastor is unapologetic, saying he answered to a higher law — God's command to love everyone. "If I am charged to minister to all people, regardless of who they are and what they are, then it should be just so," he said.

Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church doctrine on homosexuality, and some of them, like Schaefer, are facing discipline for presiding over same-sex weddings. Schaefer's trial is set to begin Nov. 18 at a Methodist retreat.

Critics say Schaefer and other clergy should not be permitted to flout Methodist teaching with impunity, saying they are ignoring the church's democratic decision-making process. The denomination's top legislative body, the 1,000-member General Conference, reaffirmed the church's 40-year-old policy on gays at its last worldwide meeting in 2012.

Rebellious clergy "have decided to take the law into their own hands, so to speak, and go ahead and violate the requirements of our (Book of) Discipline," the denomination's book of law and doctrine, said the Rev. Thomas A. Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, an evangelical Methodist group.

On Saturday, some 50 clergy plan to show their support of Schaefer by presiding over a same-sex ceremony at a Methodist church in Philadelphia — a largely symbolic gesture since Pennsylvania doesn't recognize gay marriage.

Schaefer hadn't given homosexuality a lot of thought until his son Tim came out at age 17, telling his parents he had contemplated suicide because of his struggle with sexual identity. "Growing up as a 'PK,' a pastor's kid, he didn't think that he was the way he was supposed to be, that his sexual orientation was wrong and sinful according to the church," Schaefer said.

To Schaefer, his son's admission was proof that homosexuality is not a choice. "If that's the case, this is the way God made him," Schaefer said. Schaefer said he informed his superiors in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference that he planned to officiate his son's wedding, and again after the ceremony. He said he faced no discipline until April — about a month before the church's six-year statute of limitations was set to expire — when one of his congregants filed a complaint.

Schaefer could have avoided a trial if he had agreed to never again perform a same-sex wedding. That's a promise he said he couldn't make — because three of his four children are gay. "I do worry about losing my credentials," he said, "but I'm willing to lose them for an act of love."

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