(PNS) In a reversal of a lower church court ruling, the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr has been found guilty of violating the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage by performing weddings for two lesbian couples.
The Synod of the Pacific’s Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) ruled 6-2 that while the “lesbian evangelist” and longtime Presbyterian minister “acted with conscience and conviction,” her actions were still at odds with the church’s constitution.
The synod PJC’s decision against Spahr was made on Aug. 18, following a hearing the day before in Burlingame, Calif. However, Spahr and others involved in the case did not receive word of the ruling until Aug. 23.
The decision of the synod tribunal overturned last year’s ruling by the Presbytery of the Redwoods’ PJC, which determined Spahr acted within her rights and conscience as an ordained minister when she presided over the nuptials of the two lesbian couples in 2004 and 2005.
The PC(USA)’s Book of Order defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and church courts have ruled that Presbyterian ministers may not utilize the marriage liturgy in same-sex ceremonies.
“Regardless of the expression of conscience by the Rev. Dr. Spahr, she may not circumvent the standards of the church,” according to the synod PJC ruling. “Although the Rev. Dr. Spahr had acted with conscience and conviction, her actions were contrary to the Constitution as it is authoritatively interpreted, [and] is therefore subject to censure.”
The synod PJC directed the presbytery PJC to “enter a finding of guilt” against Spahr and to impose the censure of rebuke, the mildest form of punishment that could be brought. The most serious penalty could have been removal from the ministry. The rebuke, which amounts to an official admonishment by the presbytery, does not affect the ordination of Spahr, but it could lead to further discipline if she continues to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples
The two dissenting members of the synod PJC — Linda Lee and Susan Barnes — wrote in a minority report that: “Reverend Spahr’s performance of same-sex marriages is not held by the Presbytery or the Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission to be contrary to the fundamental tenets of the Reformed faith, therefore [we] believe the issue of freedom of conscience importantly distinguishes her actions from willful disobedience, and does not require censure.”
Spahr and one of her lawyers, Sara Taylor of San Francisco, vowed to appeal the ruling to the General Assembly PJC, the highest court in the PC(USA). Taylor said the earliest the case could be heard is next spring.
The latest church court ruling reflects the struggle within the presbytery around the issue of same-sex marriage, according to the Rev. Robert Conover, acting executive and stated clerk of Redwoods Presbytery, which is based in Napa, Calif. “It is true that a majority of our presbytery holds one perspective on this issue and a significant portion holds another,” said Conover, when asked to comment on the ruling. “We have worked very hard in our presbytery to live respectfully with one another even in the midst of real profound differences of opinion. I trust it is not only my hope but the hope of the presbytery that we will be able to continue to live in that respectful way with one another as we move through this process,” he said.