The 41st PCA Assembly: Parliamentary “Proceduring” or Constitutional Compliance?

Following constitutional compliance not just Robert’s Rules of Order

After this year’s GA I’ve read some blogs and heard some conversations contending those who prevailed on several important matters related to judicial cases did so through less than admirable procedures.  But I’m not persuaded that’s the case.  In most instances, the important question involved constitutional compliance, not Robert’s Rules.  Here are a few examples.

I’ve attended 21 General Assemblies of the PCA and after each one, some men go home more encouraged, and some less so.  I suppose that same difference arises after most Presbytery meetings, Session meetings, congregational meetings, and frankly, many Thanksgiving dinners.

But after this year’s GA I’ve read some blogs and heard some conversations contending those who prevailed on several important matters related to judicial cases did so through less than admirable procedures.  But I’m not persuaded that’s the case.  In most instances, the important question involved constitutional compliance, not Robert’s Rules.  Here are a few examples.

Five attempts were made to seek the review, remand or rehearing of judicial decisions.  This happened through two minority reports from the GA Committee on Review of Presbytery Records (RPR), two different overtures from Illiana and Great Lakes Presbyteries, and a minority of the GA Committee on Constitutional Business.

1 & 2 – The RPR minority (about 20 of the 60 members) sought to have Missouri and Pacific NW Presbyteries cited with an “exception of substance” for their decisions to deny complaints against their acquittal decisions in the trials of two ministers.  But three weeks prior, in the RPR meeting, a member told the committee such an attempt would violate BCO 40-3, since that part of our constitution prohibits RPR from doing that.  Here’s the BCO excerpt:

Proceedings in judicial cases, however, shall not be dealt with under review and control when notice of appeal or complaint has been given the lower court; and no judgment of a lower court in a judicial case shall be reversed except by appeal or complaint.

Fortunately, a 2/3 majority of RPR was apparently persuaded by this constitutional citation and declined to cite either Presbytery.  Then at Greenville, when the RPR minority sought to propose their recommendation as a substitute motion to the Committee’s recommendation, a point of order was rightly raised asking the Moderator to rule the minority’s motion out of order on the ground that it would violate the constitution (i.e., BCO 40-3).  The Moderator ruled that way in both cases, the rulings were challenged, there was discussion, and the Assembly sustained the rulings.  The matter wasn’t parliamentary proceduring – it was constitutional compliance.

3 & 4 – Overtures 19 (Illiana) and 23 (Great Lakes) sought to address SJC decisions in Case 2012-05 (Hedman v. Pacific NW) and Case 2012-09 (Bennett v. Missouri).  The Illiana overture asked GA to direct the SJC to rehear the complaint.  (The SJC had voted 15-2 to not sustain Mr. Hedman’s complaint against the minister’s acquittal.)  The Great Lakes overture asked GA to direct the SJC to reverse its 15-2 decision that ruled the Bennett complaint was administratively out of order (since the complainant left the PCA for the OPC).  The PCA Clerk had referred to the GA Overtures Committee and, in both cases, the OC overwhelmingly believed they were constitutionally out of order and the OC asked the GA Moderator to rule them so.  The OC provided grounds, which contained 7 points, including its contention that the overtures violated BCO 15-5 and SJC Manual 17.2 (as properly understood).  The Committee votes were 71-27-1 and 76-15-6 respectively (72% and 83% majorities).  The Moderator ruled the points of order were well taken, ruled each overture out of order, his rulings were challenged, and the rulings were sustained.  The matter wasn’t parliamentary proceduring – it was constitutional compliance.

5.  A minority of the Committee on Constitutional Business (3 of 8 members) suggested the SJC decision in Case 2012-05 (Hedman v. Pacific NW) was unconstitutional and suggested the case be remanded to the SJC for a new hearing of the complaint.  But prior to getting to that part of the CCB report, a point of order was raised from the floor regarding the CCB report on SJC Case 2012-06, Bethel v. Southeast Alabama.  By a 5-3 majority, CCB had suggested the SJC decision was reached in error and disagreed with the SJC’s unanimous decision in the case, criticizing the SJC’s interpretation of BCO 43-1 (pertaining to who has standing to file an original complaint against an action of Presbytery).   The SJC had adopted and published a response to this CCB report in which the SJC reported its opinion that CCB had exceeded its constitutional review authority (RAO 17-1) and also reported its analysis of what it considered to be CCB’s misinterpretation of BCO 43-1.  Apparently, the SJC response was persuasive, since a motion was adopted from the floor to strike CCB’s comments on the Bethel case.  When that happened, it was probably clear the CCB minority comments on Hedman would likewise be ruled out of order, if proposed.  Furthermore, it was only a minority report from CCB, so it wasn’t before the Commissioners anyway.  So, like the previous matters, this one did not involve parliamentary proceduring – it was constitutional compliance.

None of these “points of order” were raised in response to a ruling of the GA Moderator.  They were simply raised, at the proper times, to prevent the Assembly from proceeding to do something unconstitutional – i.e., to review Presbytery decisions in judicial cases via RPR, or review SJC decisions, contrary to what’s allowed in our constitution.  And they weren’t necessarily attempts to stop opponents from speaking to a concern.  It’s reasonable to believe they were intended to keep the GA from violating the constitution.  Thus, there was no warrant for the raisers of the points of order to help their “opponents” to perfect motions that were, constitutionally, not perfectible.  Furthermore, once a motion has been made, and debate has ensued, I think it may be out of order to raise a point of order about the permissibility of the original motion.  I suppose it can be dispense with in other ways, but I don’t think via point of order.  So, when it appears someone is attempting to make a motion that is out of order, the point of order needs to be raised before any debate.  Thus, it is not discourteous, disrespectful, ungentlemanly, or sneaky to do so.

I understand why men had passion on these important judicial cases.  And I understand their desire to see reversed what they believed was error.  But I have no doubt these matters were rightly ruled out of order.  And they were ruled out of order for the same reason, for example, that an elder may not practice paedocommunion – because his affirmative answer to one of his ordination questions prohibits him from acting contrary to the constitution – TE ordination vow 4 (BCO 21-5) and RE ordination vow 5 (BCO 24-6):  “Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord?”

Thus, anyone who believes these matters should have been allowed should seek to revise the constitution.  And until then:

  • RPR cannot review a Presbytery judicial case contrary to BCO 40-3,
  • Presbyteries cannot seek remand or reversal of an SJC decision contrary to BCO 15-5, and
  •  CCB cannot review an SJC decision contrary to RAO 17-1.

Howie Donahoe is a Ruling Elder at Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Seattle, Wash. He is serves as the Stated Clerk of Pacific Northwest Presbytery and on the PCA Standing Judicial Commission.



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