'Lesbian Evangelist' Found Not Guilty in Presbyterian Court

A “lesbian evangelist” who was the first minister in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. to be tried for performing weddings for same-sex couples was acquitted Friday of violating church policies on homosexuality.

In a 6-1 decision, a judicial commission of the Redwoods Presbytery found that the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, 63, was “acting within her right of conscience in performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.”

The commission ruled that despite the section in the denomination’s constitution that reserves marriage as a union between a man and a woman, “it is a definition, not a direction,” and that Spahr had committed no offense against the church when she “married” two lesbian couples in 2004 and 2005.

Spahr, a longtime gay activist, could have faced sanctions ranging from a rebuke to removal from her ministry. In 1992, she was prohibited from serving as a co-pastor of a church in Rochester, N.Y., because of her lesbianism.

During the tribunal, Spahr admitted to officiating at two lesbian weddings and testified Thursday that she also performed hundreds of same-sex ceremonies throughout her 30-year career. She said she calls those ceremonies “marriages” if that is the term the couples prefer. None of those “weddings” are legally recognized.

Sara Taylor, one of Spahr’s defense lawyers, said the ruling is groundbreaking.

"I would definitely call this a historic decision," said Taylor said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "A mainline denomination like the Presbyterian Church said for the first time that an acting minister has the right to perform same-sex marriages."

However, Stephen Taber, the attorney representing the Redwoods Presbytery, said the commission’s decision is “poorly reasoned and not well decided” because it would put the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. on a slippery slope where mere conscience determines the right and wrong conducts for ministers.

"You have a situation where any minister anywhere can claim, 'My conscience tells me I can sleep with 16-year-old girl outside my marriage vows,' and who's to question his conscience?" Taber asked.

The minority opinion stated that it was logical for ministers to be disciplined for going against the church’s position on marriage, even if the constitution doesn’t spell it out. The PC(USA)’s constitution prohibits active gay ministers from serving and defines marriages as a union between man and woman only.

Spahr came out as a lesbian in 1978 and has called herself a “lesbian evangelist” for over a decade. She is the director of “That All May Freely Serve,” a group that lobbies against the church’s constitutional policies on homosexual ministers.