The Rev. Karen Dammann, a United Methodist pastor charged with violating the denomination's laws by living as a lesbian, was found not guilty Saturday.
In the rare church trial that highlighted the chasm between religion and homosexuality, jurors said in a prepared statement that the church had not presented "clear and convincing evidence" against Dammann.
Soft gasps sounded through the room, but Dammann, 47, sat motionless, her chin resting on clasped hands. Meredith Savage, her partner of nearly nine years whom Dammann married this month in Oregon, was less constrained, smiling broadly and rubbing Dammann's back.
Dammann later expressed her feelings in just one word: "Joy."
She has been entangled in a three-year battle that threatened to end her preaching career in the United Methodist Church, the nation's third-largest denomination with 8.3-million members. The verdict, which allows her to continue her ministry, cannot be appealed.
Dammann's supporters hugged and cried after the verdict. Bert and Stacy Miller, a lesbian couple who are not Methodist, said the case has repercussions for all Christians. "It was important that people understand that God's love is for everybody."
In 2001, Dammann wrote a letter to her bishop stating that she was in a "partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship" and that the couple had a son. (Savage gave birth to a boy five years ago; Dammann later adopted him.)
The United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline, which outlines the church's law, doctrine and procedures, forbids "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from serving in ministry.
Ever since, the matter has been the subject of hearings within the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, which includes Methodist churches in Washington and parts of Idaho. Dammann was formally charged earlier this year with "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible to Christian teachings."
But the jury, 13 clergy from within the district, many of whom knew Dammann, said they searched the Book of Discipline and could not find "a declaration" that said homosexuality was out of line with Christian teaching.
Their statement mimicked an argument presented by retired Bishop Jack Tuell, a witness for Dammann. Tuell said that the Methodist Church had never formally declared homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching and that provisions in the Book of Discipline that call it such should not be deemed church law.
Dammann has been on leave from her 60-member congregation in Ellensburg, Wash., since March 1 and is living in Toledo, Ore., with a family friend. After the verdict, she said she had not decided if she will return to Ellensburg.
Counsel representing the church said they were not surprised by the verdict.
"Under the law, the respondent had a case that they (jurors) wanted to accept," said retired attorney George Nesmith, who worked on the church's case with retired clergyman James Finkbeiner. "We had a case they didn't want to accept."
The trial began Wednesday in Bothell, about 20 miles from Seattle, and gave the nation a rare peek inside religious judiciary. Church trials are typically private, their transcripts sealed. But Dammann requested that her trial be open to the public.
The fellowship hall at Bothell United Methodist Church was transformed into a courtroom. About 50 clergy within the district were whittled down to a jury of 13 and two alternates. Bishop William Boyd Grove flew in from Charleston, W.Va., to act as judge. Retired clergy represented the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference and Dammann.
Because cameras were prohibited, sketch artists captured the scene for local TV stations.
Finkbeiner, the retired clergyman who represented the church, told jurors that as ministers they had a duty to uphold Methodist law.
Robert C. Ward, a retired clergyman representing Dammann, countered that they had an even higher calling than following the rules.
"Let me remind you that Rosa Parks would have stayed at the back of the bus if she had abided by that rule, that principle," he said in closing arguments, his voice rising to sermon pitch.
He read the lyrics to a song: "I'm gonna hammer out justice. I'm gonna hammer out freedom. "
"Your hammer is your vote!" Ward told jurors. "Hammer out justice for Karen Dammann. Let it ring out all across this church. Let it ring out all across this land of ours," he said.
After the verdict, members from both sides of the case joined about 100 Methodists for worship in the sanctuary. They sang hymns, prayed and broke bread together for communion.
"I think we have followed the Book of Discipline very carefully and faithfully," said Bishop Elias Galvan, who filed the initial complaint against Dammann at the direction of leading church governing body. "In our system, we respect the decision of the jury."
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.