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Defrocked Methodist pastor appealing punishment

Frank Schaefer is appealing  his 2013 defrocking.

Associated Press/File

Frank Schaefer is appealing his 2013 defrocking.

Frank Schaefer lost his job but not his voice.

Defrocked by the United Methodist Church six months ago for officiating at his son’s same-sex wedding, Schaefer has gained a following among those who want the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination to loosen its policies on homosexuality.

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He’s told his story dozens of times to largely sympathetic audiences around the country: How his son came out to him as a teenager who had contemplated suicide. How he hid the 2007 wedding from his conservative Pennsylvania congregation, fearing it would sow division. How he finally decided — in the midst of his high-profile church trial last fall — to become an outspoken advocate for gay rights at a time when his denomination is bitterly divided over the issue.

After his trial and conviction, ‘‘I thought I had lost everything,’’ recalled Schaefer, 52. ‘‘There was a moment of pain and depression and the next thing I knew, I was catapulted. I have more opportunities now than I ever did.’’

Except the right to call himself a Methodist minister.

‘‘I would like to get my credentials back,’’ said Schaefer, who will appear before a church panel in Baltimore this week to argue that his punishment was illegal under church law. ‘‘I’m hoping for a ‘re-frocking.’ ’’

In a little more than six months, Schaefer has become a public face of the movement to change church policy on homosexuals. The Methodist church accepts gay and lesbian members but rejects sex outside of heterosexual marriage as ‘‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’’ Openly gay people may not serve as clergy, and ministers are forbidden from performing same-sex marriages.

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The issue has roiled the Methodist church for more than 40 years, but the conflict between theological conservatives and liberals has intensified recently. Hundreds of Methodist ministers have publicly rejected church doctrine on homosexuality, while traditionalists say they have no right to break church law just because they disagree with it. Some conservative pastors are calling for a breakup of the denomination, which has 12 million members worldwide, saying the split over gay marriage is irreconcilable.

‘‘The church is a little shellshocked right now,’’ Schaefer said.

Church officials put the German-born preacher on trial in southeastern Pennsylvania after one of his congregants in Lebanon filed a complaint against him, accusing him of ignoring his pastoral vows by presiding over his son’s ceremony in Hull, Mass., in 2007.

Schaefer could have avoided the trial — and, after his conviction, kept his ordination — by promising he wouldn’t perform another same-gender wedding. But he refused, declaring he would officiate at more gay marriages if asked.

His stand galvanized gay rights activists within the church, and he’s become a fixture on the lecture circuit. In between appearances, Schaefer wrote a book, ‘‘Defrocked,’’ that will be released later this month by Chalice Press.

A documentary film crew has been following him around and a Philadelphia theater company is developing a play about him.

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