As previously reported, United Methodist Church (UMC) officials have banned Discovery Institute from sponsoring an information table at its upcoming General Conference in May 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The decision appears to have been made solely because Discovery Institute supports intelligent design, the idea that nature displays evidence it was produced by a purposeful process rather than an unguided one.
As a matter of religious liberty, I certainly defend the legal right of UMC officials to do what they did. But that doesn’t mean their decision was right. The UMC publicly claims that it is dedicated to “Open Hearts/Open Minds/Open Doors.” Furthermore, the UMC issued an invitation to outside groups to become exhibitors at its General Conference. Banning Discovery Institute from even sponsoring an information table seems to be inconsistent with the denomination’s own stated goals. Moreover, many United Methodists likely favor intelligent design, and so it is questionable whether denominational officials who are trying to ban Discovery Institute really represent the diverse views of their membership.
If you want a blow-by-blow account of what has happened up to this point, you can download the correspondence between Discovery Institute and UMC officials. But here is a summary.
In the fall of 2015, Discovery Institute applied to become an exhibitor at the United Methodist Church’s upcoming General Conference, which is to take place in May 2016. Discovery Institute was eventually informed by phone by UMC official Bobby Smith that its application was being rejected because of a resolution passed by the UMC in 2008 “opposing the introduction of any faith-based theories such as Creationism or Intelligent Design into the science curriculum of our public schools.”
Discovery Institute sought reconsideration of the decision to reject its application to be an exhibitor. The Institute pointed out that it did not advocate pushing intelligent design into public school science classes. Furthermore, the theory of intelligent design as articulated by scholars affiliated with Discovery Institute was not “faith-based,” although it had positive implications for faith.
Mr. Smith eventually replied that an unidentified group of officials had “unanimously agreed” to uphold the rejection of Discovery Institute as an exhibitor, but he provided no explanation of their rationale for doing so.
Discovery Institute asked Mr. Smith for the rationale for continuing to reject Discovery Institute as an exhibitor, a list of exhibitors accepted for the 2016 General Conference, and the name and contact information for Mr. Smith’s superior (so Discovery Institute could appeal the rejection). Mr. Smith declined to provide any further information.
On January 6, Discovery Institute appealed Mr. Smith’s decision to Mr. Moses Kumar, General Secretary and Treasurer, General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), United Methodist Church, and to Bishop Michael Coyner and Bishop Michael McKee, both of whom serve on the board of the General Council on Finance and Administration. The GCFA is the branch of the UMC for which Bobby Smith works.
On January 12, Mr. Kumar informed Discovery Institute that the decision to ban the Institute from having an information had been made by “the leadership of the Commission on the General Conference,” and Discovery Institute would receive an answer from the Chair of that entity by January 15. Discovery Institute then asked for a list of the membership of the Commission on the General Conference, but that information was not provided.
On January 14, Ms. Judi Kenaston, Chair of the Commission on the General Conference, reaffirmed the decision to reject Discovery Institute’s application to sponsor an information table. Similar to Mr. Smith, she claimed that Discovery Institute’s application had been found to be in conflict with the “Social Principles” of the UMC. However, she did not provide any evidence to substantiate this claim; nor did she respond to the evidence previously provided by Discovery Institute showing that the claim is in error. Ms. Kenaston did raise an entirely new objection, suggesting that Discovery Institute was rejected for violating a policy that conference exhibits “are not to provide a platform to survey or test ideas; rather, to provide products / services / resources which are credible and proven” to help church ministries.
I responded to Ms. Kenaston by noting:
We were not planning to survey or test ideas. We are involved in producing books, videos, and educational materials, many of which have been used in churches and Christian schools around the nation and in other countries. Over the past decade, we have sponsored science and faith conferences in many parts of the country that have drawn Christians from a variety of backgrounds, including Methodist. Our information table was going to provide information about these resources. It seems to me that you are applying your vetting standard simply to exclude an idea you apparently dislike, not to fairly apply the standards you espouse.
I further reiterated our request to Ms. Kenaston that the UMC disclose the list of approved exhibitors at the General Conference and the list of members of the “Commission on the General Conference” that made the decision to ban Discovery Institute.
On January 18, Discovery Institute went public with the UMC officials’ attempt to ban the Institute from sponsoring an information table at the UMC’s General Conference.
Image credit: © Matt Apps / Dollar Photo Club.