While many Methodist eyes are focused this week on the gathering of the UM Judicial Council in Minneapolis, another court is meeting to weigh a case that could have a significant impact on the United Methodist Church.
The Superior Court of the District of Columbia resumes a hearing related to whether the UM General Board of Church and Society can be allowed to use resources from a restricted trust fund to promote causes other than temperance. Last year, GBCS trustees — led by then-chair Bishop James Swanson (Holston Conference) — asked the Court (PDF) for a declaratory decision on the matter.
Some Methodist conservatives have complained that GBCS appears to be in violation of a specifically worded 1965 trust agreement that restricted the use of trust fund earnings to temperance-related ministry. For years, the Board has been using the money to lobby for abortion rights, government-run health care, an expanded welfare state, and other causes associated with the American political left.
Last year, the Western North Carolina Conference overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on GBCS to comply with the “purpose stated in the Trust and use Restricted Funds for the work on temperance and alcohol related problems” (see “Petition 34″ here—PDF). The resolution asserted that GBCS has not “followed either the letter of the trust or the spirit of its founders as it has expended a large portion of the funds from the trust (approximately $2 million annually) on items and programs not in accordance with the requirements of the trust.”
The Board of Church and Society is the successor to the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals and two other agencies of the former Methodist Episcopal Church. In the early 1920s, Methodists concerned about alcohol abuse donated millions of dollars to construct a headquarters for the Temperance Board near the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
The 1965 trust agreement, which transferred the building and other assets to what was to become the Board of Church and Society, stipulated that income from the trust would be devoted “in perpetuity” to addressing the “areas of temperance and alcohol problems.” (The trust language is consistent with ¶1008.2 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline: “Funds vested in any of the predecessor boards shall be conserved for the specific purposes for which such funds have been given.”)
Attempts to loosen the restrictions of the trust began as early as 1969. In that year, the Investment Committee of the Endowment Fund Trustees concluded that language in “original” Board of Temperance documents is “broader in scope and more inclusive than certain language in…the Declaration of Trust of March 23, 1965.”
These “original” documents include the Temperance Board’s 1917 Certificate of Incorporation, which said the board was being created “to promote the cause of temperance by every legitimate means; to prevent the improper use of drugs and narcotics; [and] to render aid to such causes as in the judgment of the Board of Trustees, tend to advance the public welfare” (emphasis added).
In the mid-1970s, GBCS — in an attempt to further loosen the 1965 trust restrictions — sought an opinion from outside legal counsel. The result of that consultation is described in the GBCS’s financial statements (PDF) for 2005 and 2006:
The Board’s management, on March 5, 1975, asked outside legal counsel whether the income from the Trust Fund could be properly spent on certain activities carried out by the board related to “public morals” and “general welfare.”
The list reviewed by the outside legal counsel included not only alcohol and temperance concerns, and drug abuse, but also…policy aspects of the public welfare problem and policy aspects of our health care delivery system… [as well as] questions of public morality relating to human sexuality… [and] the cost of administration for these programs…”
On May 12, 1975, outside legal counsel stated that “it would be proper to interpret the [types of] work [which the Board described when it requested the legal opinion] as [being] included under the category of ‘public morals’…and ‘general welfare’ for Trust Fund purposes. This would mean that income from the Trust Fund could be used on an annual basis for these purposes.”
Thinking more about this: The end result of these attempts to loosen the 1965 trust fund restrictions is that temperance-related spending now accounts for a relatively small percentage of GBCS expenditures.
A record of the Board’s 2006 spending (PDF—see p. 5 of the file) shows a line item of $137,933 for programs focused on “Alcohol, Addictions, and Health Care,” with no breakdown of how much of that dollar amount actually went to specific alcohol-related ministry. Another $7,303 (a designated gift) was spent on “Substance Abuse Training.”
The bulk of the Board’s $2.3 million program budget in 2006 was spent on areas such as “Economic and Environmental Justice,” “Education and Leadership Formation,” and maintaining an office at the United Nations.
In an October 2002 letter, GBCS attorney Milton Cerny noted that it was unlikely that “the trust instrument’s language could be interpreted any more broadly than has already been done.”
Mark Tooley, author of the recent book, Taking Back the United Methodist Church (reviewed here), speculated in a 2004 article in Good News magazine, that “[i]f income from the Methodist Building and old Board of Temperance investments were restricted to alcohol-related work, it would be a devastating blow to Church and Society’s ability to lobby for its more favored liberal political causes.”
The new GBCS board of directors (for 2009-2012) is scheduled to gather this week in Washington for an organizational meeting — not at The United Methodist Building, but at the Renaissance M Street Hotel.