How do church trials work?

How do church trials work?

How do church trials work?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 1 2005 6:21 PM

How Do Church Trials Work?

Do pastors get jury duty?

The highest court of the United Methodist Church defrocked a lesbian minister on Monday, ending a legal battle that lasted more than a year. Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud had been found guilty of practicing homosexuality last December, but an appeals committee overturned the verdict in April. How do church trials work?

Every denomination has its own system, but most resemble standard American legal proceedings. To punish someone for breaking a law that's in the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline, a case must be argued before a "trial court" of 13 jurors and two alternates. Both the "complainant" and the "respondent" have counsels who argue before a judge, called the "presiding officer." To secure a conviction, the complainant's side must sway nine jurors; sentencing decisions require a simple majority.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate.


Members of the jury are selected from a group of at least 35 local pastors who get summoned through the mail. Counsels can reject potential jurors through a classic voir dire process; each side gets four peremptory challenges and unlimited challenges for cause.

The first Stroud trial took place in the rec hall of a church camp in Pennsylvania. Both sides made opening statements and called witnesses to the stand. Jurors had occasional prayer breaks. After a regional appeals committee ruled that the first court ignored key issues relating to the United Methodist Church constitution, Stroud's case went to the denomination's highest court—the Judicial Council. When the council hears a case, judges review 30 minutes of oral arguments from each side, as well as written briefs. Once they make a ruling, it stands as precedent.

Not all church legal systems rely on precedent. Catholic judges, for example, decide cases on the basis of codified church law. (The legal systems in some countries also rely on a "civil code" instead of legal precedent.) If the Catholic Church decides to hold a trial, each side hires a "canonical advocate" who has at least a three-year degree in canon law and the proper certification. The advocates argue the case in front of a judge or a panel of judges. The judges themselves decide the outcome of the case behind closed doors. Appeals are adjudicated at a regular meeting of cardinals. 

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Explainer thanks Arthur Espelage of the Canon Law Society of America and Robyn Murphy of Soulforce.