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Pennsylvania pastor facing church trial over gay marriage

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A United Methodist pastor who could be defrocked for officiating at his son's same-sex wedding faces a church trial in southeastern Pennsylvania.

The Rev. Frank Schaefer, 51, could face punishment ranging from a reprimand to suspension to losing his minister's credentials if a jury comprised of fellow Methodist clergy convicts him of breaking his pastoral vows by presiding over the 2007 ceremony in Massachusetts. Schaefer's 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 it rejects the practice of homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching."

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-sex 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, Pa., beginning on Monday.

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.

Tim 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 age 17, and he said they accepted him completely.

Years later, Schaefer 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.

Frank Schaefer has said he informed his superiors in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference that he planned to officiate his son's wedding, and again after the ceremony, which took place at a restaurant near Boston. 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-gender wedding, but he declined because three of his four children are gay.

A Methodist trial resembles a secular trial in many ways, with counsel representing each side, a judge and jury, opening statements and closing arguments, and testimony and evidence.

The 13-member jury, called a "trial court," will be selected from a pool of 35. It takes at least nine votes to convict. If Schaefer is convicted, the trial moves to a penalty phase, with the same jury settling on a punishment. At least seven members of the jury must agree on the penalty.

Schaefer can appeal a conviction, but neither the church nor the person who brought the charge may appeal an acquittal.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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