The court ruled that Presbyterian ministers cannot perform same-gender marriages even in states where such marriages are legal, because the denomination’s constitution does not recognize such unions as Christian marriages.
“The issue is not simply the same-sex ceremony,” the court’s Feb. 20 ruling states. “It is the misrepresentation that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes the ceremony and the resulting relationship to be a marriage in the eyes of the church,” because the PC(USA) constitution defines Christian marriage as being between one man and one woman.
The critical question, the court ruled, “is whether it is permissible to represent that one is doing something which one cannot constitutionally do.”
Spahr officiated at the weddings of 16 same-gender couples in California from June to November, 2008. During that window of time, same-gender marriages were legal in California – up until the time when California voters passed Proposition 8, an amendment to the California constitution.
In recent weeks the situation has shifted yet again, as a federal appeals court on Feb. 7 struck down Proposition 8, ruling that the 2008 ballot initiative which limited marriage to being between one man and one woman is unconstitutional. That ruling from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is likely to be appealed.
The Feb. 20 ruling of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission has implications not only for Spahr, who is retired, but for Presbyterian ministers in six states and the District of Columbia, where same-gender marriages are legal. In some cases those ministers may be approached by couples from their own congregations, asking to be wed in the church. Same-sex marriages currently are permitted in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia.
The issue also remains a divisive one within the PC(USA), a denomination already feeling reverberations from its 2011 decision to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians who are not celibate. Partly in response to that, the Fellowship of Presbyterians has created a new denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, and some congregations are leaving the PC(USA) to go there and to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
The question of same-gender marriages is sure to come up before the General Assembly this summer in Pittsburgh as well. The 2010 General Assembly declined to change the denomination’s definition of Christian marriage, but competing overtures already have been submitted to the 2012 assembly regarding same-gender marriages – either to reinforce the current understanding of Christian marriage, or to officially interpret the Book of Order as allowing same-gender marriages in states that have legalized them, or to propose for presbyteries’ ratification an amendment to change the standard from being between “a woman and a man” to between “two people.”
This week’s ruling from the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission upholds the decisions of lower church courts in the Spahr case.
It points to a 1991 authoritative interpretation from the General Assembly stating that Presbyterian ministers should not perform same-sex union ceremonies “that the minister determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony.”
And it upheld a court ruling in the Spahr case from the Synod of the Pacific Permanent Judicial Commission, which stated that “being faithful to Scripture and the Constitution on other matters does not provide a defense for the actions charged in this case.”
The initial ruling from the Presbytery of the Redwoods Judicial Commission included a rebuke of Spahr, the imposition of which was stayed while her appeals progressed.
The decision of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission was not unanimous. Two dissenting opinions were issued, with six of the 15 judicial commission members who considered the case signing one or both of them. Two concurring opinions were signed by a total of four commission members – and one of those who wrote a concurrence urged the PC(USA) to allow teaching elders to preside at same-sex marriages in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal.
One of the dissenting opinion states that “we cannot perpetuate the idea that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) couples are children of a lesser God. They are ethically and spiritually the equals of heterosexual couples in the eyes of our Lord. None of us can honestly declare to a committed couple that somehow heterosexuals reflect a more perfect image of the God we worship than they who view their gender differently.”
But the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission ruled in February 2011, in a case involving Massachusetts minister Jean Southard, that when performing same-gender ceremonies, Presbyterian ministers “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.”