Church decision dashes hopes of gay clergy

Times Staff And Wire Reports

March was a busy month for courts weighing issues affecting churches and clergy in California and across the nation.

Three rulings -- one from a church body, two from secular courts -- involved a California lesbian who hopes to become a priest, a dispute over church property in Colorado and whether children in Texas should observe a minute of silence before starting their school day.

In California, a Presbyterian Church commission issued a ruling Wednesday that essentially halted a lesbian deacon’s candidacy for ordination as a priest.


Lisa Larges, 45, has been trying to become a Presbyterian priest for more than 20 years. She heads the group That All May Freely Serve, which advocates for gay equality in the church.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) does not allow gays or lesbians to become priests, but last week’s ruling sidestepped Larges’ sexual orientation. In a highly technical ruling, the commission rejected the process used by the Presbytery of San Francisco to approve Larges’ candidacy for ordination.

Still, Larges said the ruling has “deeply personal and painful repercussions” for her and other gay, bisexual and transgender people who want to serve the church. Larges likened the commission’s action to the ruling of an appellate court. She said it was unclear whether there would be an appeal to a higher church court.

The commission’s ruling came less than a year after leaders of the Presbyterian Church overturned a long-standing ban on the ordination of gays and lesbians. The General Assembly, meeting in San Jose last June, voted in favor of the ordination measure 54% to 46%, but its decision must still be approved by a majority of the nation’s 173 regional presbyteries.

So far, the measure to allow gay and lesbian priests is trailing, according to a tally kept by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a national group of clergy and lay church members. The network, which maintains the tally on its website “> , says that 80 presbyteries have voted against the measure and 56 for it.

Larges said she remained hopeful that gays and lesbians would eventually be able to join the ranks of priests in the Presbyterian Church. Asked why she didn’t join a denomination that does allow gay clergy, Larges explained that she was raised and baptized in the Presbyterian Church.

“I still feel called to stay here,” she said. “If ever I feel I’m called to be somewhere else, I’ll go there.” But she will stay with her church, she said, “as long as I feel I have work to do.”

Parish doesn’t own church, judge rules

Also last week, a judge ruled that a Colorado Springs church building belongs to the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado, not to a breakaway parish.

The ruling was handed down Tuesday in El Paso County District Court. Ownership has been in dispute since March 2007, when some members and leaders of Grace Church and St. Stephen’s left the national body over theological differences.

The breakaway group aligned itself with the conservative Convocation of Anglicans in Virginia but continued to worship in the building.

The Colorado Springs’ property dispute is one of many involving conservative breakaway congregations of the Episcopal Church.

In January, the California Supreme Court said rebellious congregations that part ways with their denominations could lose their church buildings and property as a result.

In a unanimous ruling, the court said the property of St. James Anglican Church in Newport Beach was owned by the national Episcopal Church, not the congregation. The congregation split away after the national church consecrated a gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

Moment-of-silence law is upheld

Earlier in the month, a federal appeals court upheld a Texas law:8081/isysquery/irlb3d6/2/doc that requires public school students to observe a daily minute of silence to pray, reflect or otherwise remain quiet.

A three-judge panel from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld a district court ruling, saying the 2003 law is constitutional because it expressly allows for any silent use of the period, either religious or nonreligious.

The panel wrote that the primary effect of the law was “not to advance religion.” It added that the law’s intent “was to promote patriotism and allow for a moment of quiet contemplation.”

The law allows children to “reflect, pray, meditate or engage in any other silent activities” for one minute at the beginning of each school day. In a lawsuit, David and Shannon Croft of Carrollton, Texas, argued that the law, by including the word “pray,” promoted religion in schools.