California minister faces reprimand for marrying gays

A Presbyterian minister in California, the Reverend Jane Spahr (pictured), accused of marrying two lesbian couples in violation of the faith's position that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, could face a reprimand or be forced to leave the ministry after more than 30 years.

BY admin

March 03 2006 12:00 AM ET

A Presbyterian
minister in California accused of marrying two lesbian
couples in violation of the faith's position that marriage
is the union of a man and a woman could face a
reprimand or be forced to leave the ministry after
more than 30 years. The Reverend Jane Spahr of San
Rafael was scheduled to be tried by a church judicial
commission on Thursday for the ceremonies, conducted
in 2004 and 2005.
Spahr, 63, argues she was honoring her personal
conscience and relationship with God when she
officiated at the ceremonies. If found guilty by the
Presbytery of the Redwoods, the regional governing body of
the Presbyterian Church (USA), she could face anything from
a rebuke to being removed from the ministry, said one
of her lawyers, Timothy Cahn.
"Faith communities have enormous responsibility
to fight oppressive systems," said Spahr, a lesbian
activist who directs a group lobbying for greater
inclusion of gay Presbyterians in the church. "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 2000, Presbyterian
churches may bless same-sex unions as long as they do
not equate the relationships with marriage.
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 Reverend Jim Rigby in Austin; the Reverend Janet
Edwards in Pittsburgh; and the Reverend Ilene Dunn in
San Antonio.
Cahn said the defense seeks to clarify whether
the 2000 church 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."
As the regional arm of the church, the
presbytery is responsible for investigating misconduct
charges leveled against its member clergy. At issue is
whether Spahr violated the part of the church constitution
defining marriage as "a covenant through which a man and a
woman are called to live out together before God their
lives in discipleship."
Robert Conover, stated clerk of the Presbytery
of the Redwoods, said a complaint against Spahr was
brought by another minister from outside the area. "We
didn't go looking for this," Conover said.
The church does not allow openly 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, Calif. (AP)

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