Synod court rules pastor broke church law when she performed same-sex weddings

Spahr has said she intends to appeal the synod court’s ruling to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC), the highest court in the PC(USA) system.

The synod court, in a March 25 ruling, upheld an August 2010 ruling of the Redwoods Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission. The Redwoods commission found in its August 27 ruling that Spahr “persisted in a pattern or practice of disobedience” when she performed 15 same-gender marriage ceremonies in California between June and November 2008, during a time when same-gender marriages were for a brief time legal in that state.

A Supreme Court of California ruling that marriage is a fundamental right allowed marriages for same-gender couples, starting June 19, 2008, but in response to that California voters in November 2008 passed Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution that limits marriages to those between one man and one woman.

The GAPJC ruled in April 2008, in an earlier case against Spahr, that church officers should not “state, imply or represent that a same-sex ceremony is a marriage.”

In making its ruling, the synod court applied to the Spahr case a standard that the GAPJC laid out in its Feb. 7, 2011 ruling in a case involving a Massachusetts minister, Jean Southard, who also had performed same-gender weddings in a state in which such weddings are legal.

In the Southard decision, the GAPJC ruled that “in light of the change in laws in some states, this Commission reiterates that officers of the PC(USA) who are authorized to perform marriages, when performing a ceremony for a same-gender couple, shall not state, imply, or represent that the same-gender ceremony is an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PC(USA) polity, whether or not the civil jurisdiction allows same-gender marriages.”

The synod commission found that in Spahr’s case, she did “state, imply or represent” that the marriages she performed were ecclesiastical marriages, and that “she considered these same-gender marriages to be equal in every way to opposite-gender marriages . . . ”

The synod commission’s ruling, while it applied to this case the standards the GAPJC has set forth in previous rulings, did express some discomfort at how things have proceeded.

“It is troubling that the GAPJC appears to have usurped the legislative province of the General Assembly when it created a new basis for discipline” in the 2008 ruling in the Spahr case, the synod commission stated in its decision.

“Whatever our opinion of the principle may be, it would appear that if the GAPJC has authority to proscribe specific behavior in this instance, it may do so in many other instances as well. The General Assembly and the presbyteries are more representative and better equipped to consider such matters by the usual practice of amending the Book of Order.”

The synod commission also raised questions about the pastoral role that ministers play for same-gender partners who want civil marriages – and the confusion some pastors feel about what the denomination permits.

“What would such a minister need to do to faithfully perform a civil wedding while conforming to PC(USA) polity regarding ecclesiastical weddings?” the synod commission asked in its ruling.

“Would a Minister of Word and Sacrament be faithful to PC(USA) polity, for example, if they officiated in a civil wedding outside a church plant, performed without any reference to the Directory for Worship, have the wedding license signed with no reference to a denomination or an ordination, or sans any other implication stated or unstated to the PC(USA)? Or, is it a violation of church polity for PC(USA) clergy to officiate at a civil same-gender wedding in all circumstances?”

The ruling also stated that “in a time when increasing numbers of states permit same-gender weddings and civil unions, it is important for the church to clarify how its clergy might pastorally participate in such secular occasions while honoring the PC(USA)’s definition of Christian marriage” as being between one man and one woman.

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