(Photo: AP Images / The Press Democrat, Christopher Chung)
A California minister was rebuked on Friday by a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) court for performing same-sex ceremonies.
In a 4-2 vote by the Redwood Presbytery Judicial Commission, the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr was found guilty of representing the ceremonies as marriages, persistently disobeying church law, and violating her ordination vows.
An anonymous layperson had brought charges against Spahr, a lesbian activist and a Presbyterian minister for 36 years, after she officiated the weddings of 16 same-sex couples during the brief period same-sex marriage was legal in California between June and November 2008.
Notably, the guilty verdict came with a page of praise in the 2 1/2-page ruling.
"We commend Dr. Spahr and give thanks for her prophetic ministry that for 35 years has extended support to 'people who seek the dignity, freedom and respect that they have been denied,' and has sought to redress 'wrongs against individuals, groups, and peoples in the church, in this nation, and in the world,'" the church court stated.
The regional court went further to call on the PC(USA) to "re-examine" its "own fear and ignorance that continues to reject the inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
The six-member panel argued that the PC(USA) constitution contains conflicting and contradictory rules and regulations pertaining to marriage. While the constitution states that marriage "is a gift God has given to all humankind for the wellbeing of the entire human family," the sentence is followed by "Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man," the panel pointed out.
"[I]n the reality in which we live today, marriage can be between same gender as well as opposite gender persons, and we, as a church, need to be able to respond to this reality as Dr. Jane Spahr has done with faithfulness and compassion," the panel stated.
While expressing support for Spahr, the court ultimately concluded that it is "constrained to accept" language in an earlier decision made by the PC(USA)'s highest court – that officers of the PC(USA) authorized to perform marriages "shall not state, imply or represent that a same sex ceremony is a marriage."
Addressing same-sex couples that testified at the trial this week, the court asked for their forgiveness on behalf of the church "for the harm that has been, and continues to be, done to them in the name of Jesus Christ."
Spahr received the light punishment of being censured by rebuke and enjoined to avoid similar offenses in the future. She intends to appeal the ruling.
Earlier, in 2008, Spahr was cleared of wrongdoing by the denomination's highest court, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission. The high court had reversed a decision by a regional judicial committee that found Spahr guilty of misconduct when she conducted ceremonies for two lesbian couples in 2004.
The PC(USA) is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country with more than 2 million members. The church body defines marriage as between a man and a woman and its highest legislative body voted in July to maintain that definition.
Though the denomination currently supports traditional marriage and bans non-celibate gay ministers from serving, conservative members have been discontent over its increasingly liberal direction. The PC(USA)'s highest legislative body voted, for the fourth time since 1997, in July to open ordination to partnered homosexuals. A majority vote from the 173 presbyteries is required to ratify the overture. The governing body also voted to urge the Board of Pensions to modify its policies in providing same-gender spouses and domestic partners of church personnel the same benefits that married members receive.