Presbyterian minister who was the first of her faith to be
tried for officiating at the unions of gay couples was
acquitted on Friday of violating her denomination's
position on same-sex marriage. A regional judicial
commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ruled 6-1
that the Reverend Jane Spahr of San Rafael,
Calif., acted within her rights as an ordained
minister when she married two lesbian couples in 2004
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 activist who could have 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 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.
the regional body's stated clerk, said Friday that it was
too soon to say whether leaders would appeal the ruling.
Many local Presbyterians, conservative and liberal
alike, complained about the cost of the trial. Acting
on a complaint brought by a minister from Bellevue,
Wash., the presbytery charged Spahr with official misconduct
last year for marrying the couples, one from
Rochester, N.Y., and the other from Guerneville,
Calif. The verdict came after six hours of deliberations and
a day and a half of proceedings.
Church is among several U.S. Protestant denominations
embroiled in 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
acknowledged officiating at the two lesbian weddings. 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."
opinion 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, a minister
for more than 30 years, came out as a lesbian in 1978.
The Presbyterian Church does not allow openly gay or lesbian
members to serve as ministers. Still, 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