Associated Press, 1 Mar 06

Presbyterian minister to be tried for marrying lesbian couples

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 challenging that."

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 things"

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 discipleship."

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 same-sex couples.

"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."