Veteran minister and longtime GLBT rights activist said she
presided at same-sex weddings as a matter of conscience
SANTA ROSA, Calif. A veteran Presbyterian minister who was the first of her faith to be tried for officiating at the weddings of gay couples was found not guilty of misconduct on March 3 for violating the denomination’s position on same-sex marriage.
A regional judicial commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ruled 6-1 that the Rev. Jane Spahr of San Rafael acted within her rights as an ordained minister when she married two lesbian couples in 2004 and 2005.
Because the section of the denomination’s constitution that reserves marriage for a man and a woman “is a definition, not a directive,” Spahr “was acting within her right of conscience in performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples,” the tribunal said in a written ruling.
A tearful Spahr, 63, a longtime lesbian activist who, if found guilty, had faced sanctions ranging from a rebuke to removal from the ministry, rejoiced at the verdict. Flanked by her lawyers and the two couples she married, Spahr said she would continue performing same-sex weddings.
“The church said God loved everyone, and for years I believed it,” she said. “Today, for just one moment, to hear this is remarkable.”
In its majority opinion, the tribunal of the Presbytery of the Redwoods, which oversees 52 churches from north of San Francisco to the Oregon border, noted that Spahr’s actions were consistent with not only her own religious views, but the “normative standards” of the region.
Sara Taylor, one of Spahr’s defense lawyers, said the ruling presumably means that all ordained clergy associated with the presbytery’s member churches are free to preside at same-sex weddings if they choose.
Acting on a complaint brought by a minister from Bellevue, Wash., the presbytery charged Spahr with official misconduct last year for marrying the couples from Rochester, N.Y., and Guerneville.
Robert Conover, the regional body’s stated clerk, said on March 3 that it was too soon to say whether the presbytery’s leadership would vote to appeal the commission’s ruling. Many local Presbyterians, conservative and liberal alike, complained about the cost of the trial.
The verdict came after six hours of deliberations and a day and a half of proceedings in the auditorium of a church in Santa Rosa that drew a crowd that often seemed to side with Spahr.
Earlier on March 3, a church prosecutor said during closing arguments that Spahr had other options for expressing her religious views besides flouting church law, including lobbying Presbyterian leaders to reverse their stance reserving marriage for a man and a woman.
Instead, Spahr invoked her understanding of Jesus’ teachings as justification for performing the weddings in 2004 and 2005, prosecutor Stephen Taber said.
“She can be here in this community and hold her conscience, but the church has its rights to its own governance,” Taber said, adding that the ordination vows Spahr took in 1974 required her allegiance to Presbyterian doctrine.
Spahr was the first of a half-dozen Presbyterian ministers across the nation facing disciplinary action for marrying same-sex couples to go to trial. Taylor said pastors outside of Northern California might fare differently, but that the decision “certainly will be instructive to other presbyteries.”
The Presbyterian Church is among several Protestant denominations embroiled in divisive debates over what role gays should have in their churches.
Under a ruling by the faith’s highest court in 2000, the church defines marriage as a sacred covenant available only to a man and a woman. Presbyterian ministers may bless same-sex unions as long as they do not equate the relationships with marriage.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, March 10, 2006.