A church in Savannah, Georgia, has become the first in the country to officially disaffiliate itself from the United Methodist Church (UMC) over LGBTQ rights, reported USA Today.

The new Asbury Memorial Church (formerly Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church) is now nondenominational, as of Thursday (September 3). The disaffiliation comes after a vote by the congregation back in September 2019, where 309 members voted in favor of leaving the denomination, widely defeating the seven members in opposition.

The vote came after the judicial council of the UMC decided to uphold the “Traditional Plan” solidifying the church’s ban on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ pastors. Denomination leaders formally announced in January 2020 that the UMC would split over the decision to create a “traditionalist Methodist” denomination which would continue on with the Traditional Plan.

The South Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church voted to officially allow the disaffiliation of Asbury from the denomination in a virtual meeting on August 15.

The church has been long known to be a safe space for LGBTQ folks. Rev. Billy Hester came to Asbury in 1993 to breathe new life into the church and consequently solidify the church as being LGBTQ-friendly by introducing theater. Asbury began blocking, staging, and performing dozens of religious musicals, including the popular “God on Broadway” show, with auditions open to the Savannah community.

“A lot of those folks were gay, and so most of them didn’t have a church home,” Hester told USA Today. “So, when these people came to do the shows, they started singing in the choir and things like that, so we became known as a very safe place for people to land. That’s how it started growing.”

Rev. Billy Hester told USA Today that when the church was affiliated with UMC, many people decided not to join Asbury.

“We have had people, gay, lesbian, maybe even straight folks who’ve been part of the new member class, who love Asbury, but then they find out what the denomination stands for,” he said. “They say, ‘I’m sorry, but I just can’t become part of this if you’re tied to that.’”

The church has reportedly blossomed since deciding to leave the denomination, with around 50 new members joining since last year’s vote.

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