updated 5/1/2004 10:41:08 AM ET 2004-05-01T14:41:08

United Methodist law clearly teaches that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, the highest court in the denomination ruled Saturday.

The Judicial Council, which met during the denomination’s General Conference, said violating that church law could be cause for removal from church office.

A delegate from Arkansas had asked for the council to rule after a lesbian minister was found innocent at a church trial in March.

The Rev. Karen Dammann of Washington state told her bishop that she was in a committed relationship with a woman and was subsequently charged with practices declared “incompatible with Christian teaching” under Methodist law.

The jury of 13 pastors effectively ruled that church law did not make it a chargeable offense for homosexual clergy to be sexually active.

Saturday’s judicial council decision also included two dissenting opinions from members who believe that the language is unclear and isn’t law. Church officials didn’t immediately say whether the decision would cause the church to revisit the Dammann case.

Traditionalists said the jury knowingly ignored church law out of sympathy for homosexual pastors. Conservatives came to the national meeting intent on finding a way to enforce the gay ordination ban.

The debate over homosexuality is expected to dominate the agenda of the conference, which is held every four years and runs through May 7.

No one believes that the 8.3 million-member denomination is about to break apart. Delegates have rejected proposals more accepting of sexually active gays by about 60 percent to 40 percent over the years. That voting trend is expected to continue among this year’s 1,000 delegates.

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