Presbyterian Minister Who Wed Lesbian Couple Cleared of Charges

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s high court ruled this week in favor of a minister who married two women, reversing a lower court's guilty verdict.

According to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly, the lower court erred when it determined that Jean K. Southard violated the PC(USA) constitution.

Southard had officiated at a marriage ceremony between Jennifer Irene Duhamel and Sara Jane Herwig in 2008. The ceremony took place at First Presbyterian Church in Waltham, Mass., after she concluded that the two were well suited for marriage.

The service followed the customary Presbyterian liturgy for marriage found in the Book of Common Worship, according to the GAPJC.

A complaint was filed against Southard. She was accused of violating the denomination's constitution, which states that "marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man," and failing to fulfill her ordination vow to be governed by the church's polity.

Boston Presbytery's Permanent Judicial Commission did not sustain the charges. But the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of the Northeast (SPJC) reversed the ruling in 2010 and remanded the case to the former court to determine the degree of censure, if any, to be imposed.

Southard appealed to the PC(USA)'s high court. Its decision to reverse SPJC's ruling was announced Tuesday.

In its ruling, the GAPJC cited a similar case involving California minister the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, who married some 16 same-sex couples. Spahr was found guilty last year by the Redwood Presbytery Judicial Commission of representing the ceremonies as marriages, persistently disobeying church law, and violating her ordination vows.

She has appealed the ruling.

The GAPJC said in its decision that Spahr's case cannot be applied retroactively to the facts in Southard's case and that Southard conducted the ceremony two months prior to Spahr.

"Therefore, Southard did not violate the Book of Order or her ordination vows by erring in her constitutional interpretation. She did not commit an offense because the applicable authoritative interpretation (Spahr) had not yet been promulgated," the court ruled.

In a statement Tuesday, Southard acknowledged that the PC(USA) continues to be deeply divided over same-gender marriage. She noted that Presbyterian ministers in "marriage-inclusive" jurisdictions are left in a difficult position.

"I didn't set out to bring about change in the church. My only intent was to do what is faithful to the call of Jesus to love all our neighbors without exception," she said.

Notably, she added that she believes the denomination's constitution "is full of affirming statements not just calling on, but requiring the inclusion of all God's children in the church."

Nearly half of the commissioners on the GAPJC concurred with the ruling, but stressed the need for a clearer definition of Christian marriage.

Some in the church have pointed to conflicting rules in the constitution regarding marriage.

"The church needs a sharper degree of clarification and guidance that precisely defines how it understands marriage, especially in light of the high financial and personal burden involved. Given the contention regarding the nature and practice of Christian marriage in our time, it would be important and valuable for the Church to state its definition in clearer and more precise legislation."

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