Reporting from San Francisco and San Antonio, Texas -- A retired Presbyterian pastor who spent her career ministering to gay men and lesbians has been censured by her denomination for marrying same-sex couples during the brief time such unions were legal in California.
The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr lost her final appeal before the highest court in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which released its opinion Tuesday. The tribunal ruled that the 69-year-old lesbian had violated the church’s constitution and her ordination vows when she officiated at the unions of 16 couples and called them marriages.
A lower court’s rebuke of Spahr was upheld, along with the warning that pastors should not represent the marriage of gay or lesbian couples as Presbyterian marriages. As a result, all ministers who officiate at same-sex weddings could face church sanctions, said the Rev. Beverly Brewster, one of Spahr’s lawyers.
“Notwithstanding the fact that the trial court found Rev. Spahr to be a faithful minister and faithful to the Gospel, the high court still found her guilty,” Brewster said. “It has a major chilling effect” on ministers moving forward.
On Tuesday, Spahr said she would continue to marry gay and lesbian couples regardless of the verdict by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the church’s version of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I feel sad for the couples who are going to hear another no” said Spahr, who lives in San Francisco. “I feel sad for the church. My concern is that it will make ministers fearful to do the most loving and right thing.”
But the judicial commission did more than decide the fate of a single minister and the couples she wed. The struggle over including gays and lesbians has created a fracture within the church, and the ruling will help define the battle in a rapidly shifting legal and spiritual landscape.
Last spring, the Presbyterian Church (USA) agreed to allow gays and lesbians to be ordained as ministers. When its governing body — the General Assembly — meets this summer, it is expected to debate and vote on motions dealing with the definition of marriage and whether ministers may officiate at same-sex weddings.
Washington last week became the seventh state, along with the District of Columbia, to sanction same-sex marriage. And the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a lower-court ruling that declared California’s voter-approved gay marriage ban unconstitutional; backers of Proposition 8 are appealing that decision.
“The fundamental issue, I think, for conservative Presbyterians is that all of these issues are falling on the side of disregarding what the Scripture says” and driving churches out of the denomination, said the Rev. Mary Holder Naegeli of the Presbyterian Coalition, a national organization of evangelical conservative Presbyterians. “This particular case is important.”
Naegeli said she was glad the church high court had done the “right thing” in affirming Spahr’s guilt. But, she said, opinions attached to the ruling included arguments about why the denomination’s law on marriage should be changed.
“That’s disappointing to me,” Naegeli said.
The Rev. Jim Rigby, pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin and a liberal activist, said that in ruling on Spahr, “the church is voting on itself. For a reformed church to choose its past over its people is death.”
Rigby, who attended a packed judicial hearing in San Antonio on Friday in support of Spahr, said he was not surprised at the ruling. But “it still has this dull pain to it,” he said. “It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Christ and how Christ commanded us to look at one another.”
Spahr was found guilty in August 2010 of marrying couples after California’s Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians could legally wed and before voters passed Proposition 8.
At the same time it found Spahr guilty, however, the panel of church leaders from the Presbytery of the Redwoods praised Spahr for her “faithful compassion” and decades-long ministry to gays and lesbians — and underscored the confusion in the church’s constitution.
Spahr challenged that ruling, but a regional church appeals court in March affirmed her guilt. So she appealed that decision to the denomination’s national level.
Spahr’s 2010 trial in Napa, Calif., was long and emotional. Many of the couples she had married testified about how healing the legal and religious ceremony had been after a lifetime of feeling like second-class citizens.
In contrast, Friday’s hearing in a Texas hotel ballroom lasted about 90 minutes. Each side had half an hour to make its case, and then the commission members asked questions.
Spahr’s lawyer Sara Taylor — who was among those the pastor had wed — talked about the meaning of marriage. She argued that when Spahr conducted the ceremonies, it had been defensible under church law as within her discretion as a pastor.
As she listed the benefits of marriage to the couples Spahr had wed, several couples in the audience stood. That was what Spahr said she wanted most: for the commission to know the “church folk” they were dealing with, to hear their names and see their faces.
Spahr’s attorneys said that nowhere in church laws is same-sex marriage prohibited and that it was time for the church to take a stand, in the name of social justice.
Church Prosecutor JoAn Blackstone disagreed.
“We have to ask ourselves whether the denomination is ready for a change,” she said. “We haven’t gotten there yet.”
She said the decision should be made legislatively by the Presbyterian General Assembly, not the commissioners.
“If you were to redefine marriage, I think that would be a difficult thing for the church to come to terms with,” she said, urging commissioners to “consider the whole church.”