San Jose Mercury News, 3 March 2006

Minister innocent of misconduct for performing lesbian weddings

By LISA LEFF
Associated Press

SANTA ROSA, Calif. - A veteran Presbyterian minister who was the first of her faith to be tried for officiating the weddings of gay couples was found not guilty of misconduct Friday 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 faith'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 Friday 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 Santa Rosa church that drew a crowd that often seemed to side with Spahr.

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 denomination's highest court in 2000, Presbyterian ministers may bless same-sex unions as long as they do not equate the relationships with marriage and the ceremonies do not mimic traditional weddings.

Earlier Friday, a church prosecutor said during closing arguments that Spahr had other options for expressing her religious views, 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 flouting church law, 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 admitted officiating at the two lesbian weddings, but said she was following both her conscience and a call from God. She testified Thursday that she has performed hundreds of weddings during her career and calls the ceremonies she conducts for same-sex couples "marriages" if that is the term the couples prefer.

The judicial commission appeared to accept that reasoning, writing that the Bible proclaims "a message of inclusiveness, reconciliation, and the breaking down of barriers that separate humans from each other."

The minority opinion, submitted by Janet Moor, an elder from a church in Benicia, stated it was logical to assume that ministers should be disciplined for going against the church's position on marriage, even if the constitution does not spell that out.

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."

Spahr, a minister for more than 30 years, came out as a lesbian in 1978. Though the Presbyterian Church does not allow actively gay or lesbian members to serve as ministers, she was allowed to keep her position, but has been prohibited from leading an individual church since 1991.

She has worked for two churches since then as a "lesbian evangelist" and director of That All May Freely Serve, a group lobbying for ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians.