Associated Press, 1 Mar 06
Presbyterian minister to be tried for marrying lesbian couples
By LISA LEFF
The Associated Press
San Francisco (AP) -- A Presbyterian minister in Northern California
is scheduled to be tried by a church judicial commission on Thursday
for marrying two lesbian couples in violation of the faith's position
that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman.
If found guilty by the regional governing body of the Presbyterian
Church (USA), the Rev. Jane Spahr, of San Rafael, could be removed
from the ministry after more than 30 years. Spahr, 63, a lesbian
activist who directs a group lobbying for greater inclusion of gay
Presbyterians in the church, argues she was honoring her personal
conscience and relationship with God when she officiated at the
weddings in 2004 and 2005.
"Faith communities have enormous responsibility to fight oppressive
systems," Spahr said Wednesday. "Certainly the founder of the
Christian faith was someone who challenged all oppressive systems that
kept people from being whole."
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is among several Protestant
denominations embroiled in a bitter debate between liberals and
conservatives over what role gays should have in their churches. Under
a ruling by the national church's highest court in 2001, Presbyterian
churches may bless same-sex unions as long as they do not equate the
relationships with marriage.
A central issue to be brought out at Spahr's trial before a
seven-member tribunal of the regional Presbytery of the Redwoods will
therefore be whether the ceremonies she conducted were weddings or
simply the commitment ceremonies that gay and lesbian couples long
have used as substitutes to honor their commitments.
Timothy Cahn, one of Spahr's lawyers, said the defense does not plan
to split such hairs, but rather seek to clarify whether the 2001 court
ruling is at odds with the church's historical position giving
ministers broad discretion in how they interpret the faith to meet the
needs of their congregations.
"The court says ministers must differentiate — same-sex holy unions
and marriage for everyone else," Cahn said. "Janie's conduct is
Robert Conover, stated clerk of the Presbytery of the Redwoods, said
the complaint against Spahr was brought by another minister from
outside the area.
"We didn't go looking for this," Conover said. "We are a presbytery,
like all presbyteries, with members who are on the liberal side of
things and the conservative side of things and in the middle of
As the regional arm of the church, the presbytery is responsible for
investigating misconduct charges leveled against its member clergy and
that its prosecutors concluded Spahr violated the part of the church
constitution defining marriage as "a convenant through which a man and
a woman are called to live out together before God their lives in
The church does not allow actively gay or lesbian members to serve as
ministers, although Spahr, who was ordained in 1974, was allowed to
keep her position after she came out as a lesbian in 1978. She has
been prohibited from leading an individual church since 1991, however,
and since then has worked for two churches as a "lesbian evangelist"
and director of That All May Freely Serve, a group lobbying for
ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians.
Besides Spahr, witnesses at the trial are expected to include the two
couples she married, Connie Valois and Barbara Jean Douglass, of
Rochester, N.Y., and Annie Senechal and Sherrill Figuera, of
Guerneville. If the tribunal finds Spahr guilty, she faces
disciplinary action ranging from a rebuke to being removed from the
ministry, Cahn said.
Spahr is one of a half-dozen Presbyterian ministers across the nation
facing disciplinary action for marrying same-sex couples, although her
case is the first to come to trial, Cahn said. The others include the
Rev. Jim Rigby in Austin, Texas, the Rev. Janet Edwards in Pittsburgh,
and the Rev. Ilene Dunn in San Antonio.
Both the Presbytery of the Redwoods and Spahr have described the
proceedings as an opportunity to educate people about the church's
teachings and agreed to open the trial to the public. Spahr said
Wednesday that she decided not to avoid a trial by pleading guilty so
her case would further the national dialogue about marriage rights for
"When we don't talk about it or silence it, who gets hurt is the
people who are oppressed," she said. "To bring this up in
conversation, I can only hope will have people maybe asking different
questions or having deeper conversations."