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United Methodist pastor's trial over gay marriage to begin on Monday

| Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

A Pennsylvania pastor charged under United Methodist law with officiating at his son's same-sex marriage is scheduled to go on trial on Monday.

The Rev. Frank Schaefer, 51, of Lebanon County could be defrocked if a jury comprised of fellow Methodist clergy convicts him of breaking his pastoral vows by officiating the 2007 ceremony in Massachusetts.

His supporters argue that church teaching on homosexuality is outmoded.

“Public opinion has changed very rapidly,” said the pastor's son, Tim Schaefer, 29. “I hope this leads to a renewed conversation to revisit these policies to see if they are a little archaic.”

The nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination accepts gay and lesbian members, but rejects the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Clergy who perform same-sex unions risk punishment ranging from a reprimand to suspension to losing their minister's credentials.

The issue has split the church. Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church doctrine on homosexuality, and some of them face discipline for presiding over same-gender unions.

Critics say those pastors are sowing division within the church and ignoring the church's democratic decision-making process. Indeed, 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.

The Methodists have set aside three days for Schaefer's trial, to be held at a church retreat in Spring City.

Tim Schaefer of Hull, Mass., will testify on his father's behalf.

“(The defense wants) to highlight how hurtful the policy of the church is toward the LGBT community,” he said.

Schaefer struggled as a teenager, aware of Methodist doctrine on homosexuality. He said he prayed every night that “God would make me normal, take this away from me.”

He contemplated suicide but knew it would devastate his family. Schaefer finally told his parents at 17, and he said they accepted him.

Years later, he knew he wanted his dad to perform his wedding ceremony.

“I remember thinking I have two choices: I can ask my dad and know I am putting him in a position ... where he would risk his career, or I could not ask my dad and really risk hurting his feelings. I think he would have been devastated if I hadn't asked him,” he said.

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