Presbyterians censure minister for same-sex marriages


A retired minister who officiated at more than a dozen same-sex marriages when such unions were legal in California was found guilty Friday of violating the Presbyterian constitution and her ordination vows for performing those ceremonies.

After a four-day church trial that was equal parts Scripture lesson and celebration of marriage, a panel of leaders from the Presbytery of the Redwoods voted 4 to 2 that the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr should be censured because she “persisted in a pattern or practice of disobedience.”

But the six-member panel voted unanimously that the 68-year-old lesbian’s actions did not disrupt the “peace, unity and purity of the church” and praised her “faithful compassion” and her 35-year ministry to gays and lesbians throughout the country.

“In addition, we call upon the church to reexamine our own fear and ignorance that continues to reject the inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” the panel said in its ruling. “We say this believing that we have in our own Book of Order conflicting and even contradictory rules and regulations that are against the Gospel.”

Spahr vowed to appeal the ruling, marching out of Covenant Presbyterian Church, where the trial was held, hand in hand with the couples who testified during the emotional proceeding.

“It has been my greatest honor to have married you,” Spahr told the tearful couples immediately after the ruling was read. “We know, as oppressive systems change, they need people who are as magnificent as you are…. We are changing a wrong here, a terrible injustice.”

The Presbyterian constitution does not explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage and, in fact, describes marriage as “a gift God has given to all humankind for the well being of the entire human family.” But it also defines marriage as “a civil contract between a woman and a man.”

Sherrie Holmes and Sara Taylor were the first couple Spahr married during the brief window in 2008 when such actions were possible, between the California Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex unions and the passage of the Proposition 8 ban.

The Novato women’s June 20, 2008, ceremony at the Marin County Civic Center made the local newspapers and television broadcasts. Shortly afterward, the head of the church’s coastal Northern California region received a complaint against the longtime minister.

Spahr’s accuser has chosen to remain anonymous, but along with the complaint, he sent the Rev. Robert Conover, executive of the Presbytery of the Redwoods, a news story about the wedding and a certified copy of Holmes’ and Taylor’s marriage license, signed by Spahr.

This week’s trial was the second time Spahr has faced charges for marrying same-sex couples. In the first trial, she was acquitted, but the Presbyterian church’s highest court included a stern order in the ruling.

It was read repeatedly during the proceedings this week by prosecutor JoAn Blackstone: “Officers of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who are authorized to perform marriages shall not state, imply or represent that a same-sex ceremony is a marriage,” the high court ruled two years ago, noting that under the faith’s constitution, “a same-sex ceremony is not and cannot be a marriage.”

Spahr performed the weddings at the heart of her first trial when same-sex marriage was not legal in California, and the Presbyterian court at the time concluded that Spahr could not be found guilty of performing an impossible act. But weeks after Spahr’s acquittal, the state Supreme Court changed the state of marriage in California.

So through her attorneys, Spahr went back to the church’s high court and asked for clarification. But the ecclesiastical high court let its ruling stand without giving ministers further guidance. And Spahr went on to marry more lesbian and gay couples.

“The lack of response … was a failure of courage on the part of the church,” the Rev. Deborah Krause, a biblical scholar and defense witness, said during cross-examination this week. Spahr “was left bereft by the church.… Was she in a position to have to figure out what that meant on her own? I’d say yes.”

Blackstone viewed the proceeding as a narrow exploration of conduct and of Spahr’s violation of very clear rules. She called no witnesses, conducted minimal cross-examination and placed five documents into evidence.

“There was a disciplinary offense in the doing of those marriages even though it was done out of the best of intentions,” Blackstone said during her final arguments Thursday.

In his closing arguments, defense attorney Scott Clark rejected that contention.

“The prosecution is asking you to require ministers of word and sacrament to say no to same-gender couples,” Clark told the panel. “We have heard again and again the real harm in real lives of that no. A no from you would be a real rejection to a marginalized people.”

But the trial’s most dramatic moments were stories. There was Spahr’s personal saga of coming out, of her fight to change her church and the sustaining love of her friends, her children, her former husband and his wife, all of whom were in the audience.

And then there were the tales of faith, family and fear told by or about the 16 couples Spahr was charged with marrying.

Ten couples testified about how important marriage was to them, how Spahr and the “homework” she requires during months of premarital counseling brought them to a deeper love of their partners and God, how healing legal marriage is to them, their parents and their children.

In its ruling, the panel acknowledged that, “in the reality in which we live today, marriage can be between same-gender as well as opposite-gender persons, and we, as a church, need to be able to respond to this reality as Dr. Jane Spahr has done with faithfulness and compassion.”

But it also said that that the 2008 decision “should be followed until and unless modified.” After the ruling was read, two of the panel members said that they found Spahr guilty in hopes that the church as a whole would take up the matter.

“You know that we love you,” the Rev. Beverly White said tearfully to Spahr after voting against her. “Part of the reason for our decision was to get the larger church to deal with this issue and hear your voices.”