(Photo: AP Images / Eric Risberg)
The highest court of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has affirmed the censure of a self-described "lesbian evangelist" who in 2008 performed several same-sex marriage ceremonies in California while it was legal to do so.
In a divided decision, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly affirmed on Monday the Presbytery of the Redwoods' censure of the Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr.
The PJC began hearing testimony on Friday at the Drury Plaza Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, and rendered its decision the following Monday.
"The issue is not simply the same-sex ceremony. 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," read the majority opinion.
"So the critical question is not whether the definitional language creates proscribed conduct, it is whether it is permissible to represent that one is doing something which one cannot constitutionally do."
According to the PC(USA) constitution, W-4.9001, "Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship."
"In a service of Christian marriage a lifelong commitment is made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith."
Although amendments have been proposed in the past to amend W-4.9001 to change the language from "a man and a woman" to "two people," including most recently at the 2010 General Assembly, none have been successful.
In addition to the majority opinion, there were a couple concurring opinions written, as well as multiple dissenting opinions by the members of the PJC.
In one dissenting opinion, six members of the PJC argued that the censure was wrong because the PC(USA) should not treat same-sex couples as a "second class."
"…we must respectfully dissent from the majority opinion which perpetuates our reliance upon an incorrect construction of W- 4.9001 and continues the discrimination against our LGBT brothers and sisters," reads the dissent.
A concurring opinion signed by three PJC members, on the other hand, said that even if the PC(USA) will eventually amend their constitution to expand their definition of marriage, this effort can only be done through formal channels.
"The appropriate way to redefine marriage and permissible practice within the PC(USA) is not through individual reinterpretation of the advice of the larger church, but by means of an amendment to the Constitution approved by the General Assembly and ratified by the presbyteries of the church," reads the opinion.
Spahr has had a history of supporting same-sex marriage while serving as a minister in San Francisco.
In 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom started illegally issuing same-sex marriage licenses, Spahr oversaw two same-sex marriage ceremonies. She was later found guilty of misconduct by a regional judicial committee, but the decision was overturned in 2006 by a judicial commission of the Redwoods Presbytery.
In 2008, Spahr conducted 16 same-sex wedding ceremonies from June to November, which was the period when same-sex marriage was legal in California. A 4-2 vote in the Redwoods Presbytery Judicial Commission in August 2010 found her guilty of violating church law.
Spahr did not return comment by press time.