Presbyterian Church clears minister in gay marriage case
By LISA LEFF, Associated Press Writer
(04-29) 14:59 PDT Tiburon, CA (AP) --
The highest court of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has found that a California minister did not violate denominational law when she officiated at the weddings of two lesbian couples.
The ruling announced Tuesday by the Louisville, Ky.-based court overturns a decision last year by a regional judicial committee that found the Rev. Jane Spahr guilty of misconduct and gave her a rebuke — the lightest possible punishment.
The church's high court found that Spahr did not violate the church's constitution because the ceremonies she performed were not marriages, even though that is what the veteran minister, herself a lesbian, called them. The constitution defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman.
"The ceremonies that are the subject of this case were not marriages. ... These were ceremonies between women, not between a man and a woman," the 12-person court said in an eight-page opinion, adding that the midlevel court "found Spahr guilty of doing that which by definition cannot be done."
The court majority went on to stress that the church's position since 1991 has been to allow ministers to bless same-sex unions as long as they don't mimic traditional marriages, suggesting that pastors who follow in Spahr's footsteps could be subject to future discipline.
"In holding that Spahr was not guilty as charged, this Commission does not hold that there are no differences between same-sex ceremonies and marriage ceremonies," the majority wrote. "Officers of the PCUSA authorized to perform marriages shall not state, imply or represent a same-sex ceremony is a marriage."
That finding drew a written dissent from five members of the tribunal, who said their colleagues had exceeded their authority in issuing the admonition.
"Because a same-sex ceremony cannot be a marriage... it should not be necessary to say more," the dissenters wrote. "It is not the place of this Commission to go any farther and step into the legislative realm."
Spahr's lawyer, Sara Taylor, agreed, calling the court majority's attempt to prevent pastors from presiding at same-sex weddings an illogical act of "judicial activism."
"It's saying there is not a prohibition, but don't do it again," Taylor said.
Spahr, 65, who retired last year as the head of a church-sanctioned ministry for gay and lesbian Presbyterians, said she had no intention of abiding by a ruling she considered "duplicitous."
"It really doesn't matter to me what they might do. I must do what I have been called to do," she said.
Spahr was the first minister of her faith to be tried for officiating the weddings of gay couples. She was one of several Presbyterian ministers facing disciplinary action for similar offenses.
Acting on a complaint brought by a minister in Washington state, the Presbytery of the Redwoods, which oversees 52 churches along the Pacific coast, brought the charges against Spahr in 2005 for marrying the couples from New York and California.
In 2006, a presbytery court found that Spahr had acted within her rights as a minister when she interpreted the church doctrine to permit her to perform acts of conscience such as presiding over the weddings.
The presbytery appealed the ruling to the church's regional judicial commission, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of the Pacific, which said that Spahr should have followed the church constitution instead of her conscience.
Spahr appealed that ruling to the church's top court, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly. If it had upheld the intermediate court's finding, the most severe discipline Spahr faced was having the rebuke affirmed, according to Scott Clark, another of her lawyers.
"We are obviously pleased the commission lifted the censure," Clark said.
Copyright 2008 AP