SANTA ROSA, Calif. – A longtime Presbyterian minister who was the first of her faith to be tried for officiating at the unions of gay couples was acquitted Friday of violating her denomination’s position on same-sex marriage.
A regional judicial commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ruled 6-1 that the Rev. Jane Spahr of San Rafael acted within her rights as an ordained minister when she married two lesbian couples in 2004 and 2005.
Because the section of the faith’s constitution that reserves marriage for a man and a woman “is a definition, not a directive,” Spahr was “acting within her right of conscience in performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples,” the tribunal said in a written ruling.
A tearful Spahr, 63, a longtime activist who could have faced sanctions ranging from a rebuke to removal from the ministry, rejoiced at the verdict. Flanked by her lawyers and the two couples she married, Spahr said she would continue performing same-sex weddings.
“The church said God loved everyone, and for years I believed it,” she said. “Today, for just one moment, to hear this is remarkable.”
The marriages are not legally recognized.
In its majority opinion, the tribunal of the Presbytery of the Redwoods, which oversees 52 churches from north of San Francisco to the Oregon border, noted that Spahr’s actions were consistent with the “normative standards” of the region.
Sara Taylor, one of Spahr’s defense lawyers, said the ruling presumably means that all ordained clergy associated with the presbytery’s member churches are free to preside at same-sex weddings if they choose.
Robert Conover, the regional body’s stated clerk, said Friday that it was too soon to say whether leaders would appeal the ruling. Many local Presbyterians, conservative and liberal alike, complained about the cost of the trial.
Acting on a complaint brought by a minister from Bellevue, Wash., the presbytery charged Spahr with official misconduct last year for marrying the couples from Rochester, N.Y., and Guerneville, Calif.
The verdict came after six hours of deliberations and a day and a half of proceedings.
The Presbyterian Church is among several Protestant denominations embroiled in debates over what role gays should have in their churches. Under a ruling by the denomination’s highest court in 2000, Presbyterian ministers may bless same-sex unions as long as they do not equate the relationships with marriage and the ceremonies do not mimic traditional weddings.
Spahr acknowledged officiating at the two lesbian weddings. She testified Thursday that she has performed hundreds of weddings during her career and calls the ceremonies she conducts for same-sex couples “marriages” if that is the term the couples prefer.
The judicial commission appeared to accept that reasoning, writing that the Bible proclaims “a message of inclusiveness, reconciliation, and the breaking down of barriers that separate humans from each other.”
The minority opinion stated it was logical to assume that ministers should be disciplined for going against the church’s position on marriage, even if the constitution does not spell that out.
Spahr, a minister for more than 30 years, came out as a lesbian in 1978. The Presbyterian Church does not allow openly gay or lesbian members to serve as ministers. Still, she was allowed to keep her position but has been prohibited from leading an individual church since 1991.
She has worked for two churches since then as a “lesbian evangelist” and director of That All May Freely Serve, a group lobbying for ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians.