- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2019

A regional conference of the United Methodist Church has filed a lawsuit to stop Southern Methodist University from severing more than a century of legal ties and property rights over the church’s recently reaffirmed opposition to same-sex marriage.

The South Central Jurisdictional Conference (SCJC) filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Dallas County Court citing university officials’ “unauthorized acts” of sending paperwork to Texas’ secretary of state last month attempting to clarify or amend SMU’s relationship with the worldwide church.

“The November 2019 Articles purport to divest SCJC of all its rights and to effectively terminate the long-standing and permanent relationship between SMU and SCJC,” the lawsuit states.

SMU President R. Gerald Turner on Friday issued a statement to the school’s website confirming that the Board of Trustees of the private university had sought to update its articles of incorporation but denied any legal wrongdoing.

“We are confident that our Board’s actions are in compliance with Texas law,” Mr. Turner said.

The showdown over who owns or at least has a controlling stake in the SMU campus, including its seminary and $1.5 billion endowment, comes nine months after a February vote by members of the United Methodist Church to continue a ban on same-sex marriage.

Next May, Methodists from around the world will meet at the General Conference in Minneapolis to vote on a way forward for churches with dissenting views on LGBTQ issues, including the possibility of a schism.

During February’s vote for the “Traditional Plan,” which was promoted largely by members of the international church, Mr. Turner issued a statement standing by his campus’ LGBTQ community.

“We reaffirm SMU’s deep commitment to providing a welcoming community for all students, faculty and staff members and visitors,” he said on Feb. 27. “This commitment has not and will not change for LGBTQ individuals as well as for all others.”

An SMU spokeswoman on Monday said Mr. Turner had reached out to members of the United Methodist Church before filing documents with the secretary of state in mid-November.

“With Methodist in our name, the Perkins School of Theology as a resource and assurance of Methodist representation on the Board of Trustees, the Church will continue to have important influence in the governance of SMU,” Mr. Turner said in his February statement.

But the SCJC, a body of church leaders from eight states from Nebraska to Louisiana, said SMU officials can’t simply decide to bolt with the campus, which began with a gift of 133 acres from the church in 1911.

In the lawsuit, SCJC attorneys cite an agreement that the gifted land would “forever to be used, held, maintained and disposed of for educational purposes according to the Discipline and usages of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.”

As recently as 1996, the SCJC says, university officials had noted that the conference would occupy a seat on the Board of Trustees and wield veto power over any land deals.

Recent demographic data shows that roughly 15% of SMU’s more than 11,000 graduate and undergraduate students identify as Methodist. The Perkins School of Theology, one of the school’s original founding colleges, maintains status as one of United Methodist Church’s 13 seminaries.

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