Jane Spahr acquittal on same-sex wedding charges is overturned
Synod court orders rebuke for lesbian activist minister
by Evan Silverstein
Presbyterian News Service
August 27, 2007
LOUISVILLE In a reversal of a lower church court ruling,
the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr has been found guilty of violating
the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s constitutional ban on
same-sex marriage by performing weddings for two lesbian
The Synod of the Pacific's Permanent Judicial Commission
(PJC) ruled 6-2 last week that while the "lesbian
evangelist" and longtime Presbyterian minister "acted with
conscience and conviction," her actions were still at odds
with the church's constitution.
The decision of the synod tribunal overturned last year's
ruling by the Presbytery of the Redwoods' PJC, which
determined Spahr acted within her rights and conscience as
an ordained minister when she presided over the nuptials of
the two lesbian couples in 2004 and 2005.
The PC(USA)'s Book of Order defines marriage as between a
man and a woman, and church courts have ruled that
Presbyterian ministers may not utilize the marriage liturgy
in same-sex ceremonies.
"Regardless of the expression of conscience by the Rev. Dr.
Spahr, she may not circumvent the standards of the church,"
according to the synod PJC ruling. "Although the Rev. Dr.
Spahr had acted with conscience and conviction, her actions
were contrary to the Constitution as it is authoritatively
interpreted, [and] is therefore subject to censure."
The synod PJC directed the presbytery PJC to "enter a
finding of guilt" against Spahr and to impose the censure of
rebuke, the mildest form of punishment that could be
brought. The most serious penalty could have been removal
from the ministry.
The rebuke, which amounts to an official admonishment by the
presbytery, does not affect the ordination of Spahr, but it
could lead to further discipline if she continues to perform
wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples
The synod PJC's decision against Spahr was made on Aug. 18,
following a hearing the day before in Burlingame, CA.
However, Spahr and others involved in the case did not
receive word of the ruling until late Thursday (Aug. 23).
The two dissenting members of the synod PJC Linda Lee and
Susan Barnes wrote in a minority report that: "Reverend
Spahr's performance of same-sex marriages is not held by the
Presbytery or the Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission
to be contrary to the fundamental tenants of the Reformed
faith, therefore [we] believe the issue of freedom of
conscience importantly distinguishes her actions from
willful disobedience, and does not require censure."
Spahr and one of her lawyers, Sara Taylor of San Francisco,
vowed to appeal the ruling to the General Assembly PJC, the
highest court in the PC(USA). Taylor said the earliest the
case could be heard is next spring.
Spahr, a 65-year-old grandmother who is set to retire from
ministry at the end of this month, expressed disappointment
in the latest ruling.
"I'm just deeply saddened, I'm deeply saddened because of
the injustice," Spahr told the Presbyterian News Service on
Aug. 24. "This kind of second-class treatment often
perpetuates not only the myths and stereotypes but often
gives people license to hurt us for violence and I'm so
concerned about that."
Spahr, a resident of San Rafael, CA, said that she had
presided over many holy unions, blessings, commitment
services and other ceremonies to honor same-sex unions. She
said homosexual couples had increasingly wanted the same
ceremony as is used for heterosexual couples.
Despite the court's ruling, Spahr said that she would
continue doing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.
"I am deeply saddened that our church has chosen not to
recognize the loving relationships of members of its own
family," Spahr said. "These couples and many like them have
found a sacred trust in their love for each other. This
reversal of the presbytery's decision promotes a belief that
somehow this love is less than valid."
Taylor said she believes Spahr acted within her rights as an
ordained minister in marrying the two couples because the
section of the PC(USA)'s constitution specifying that
marriage is between a man and a woman is a definition, not a
"They did not examine the case thoroughly," said Taylor,
referring to the synod PJC. "They did not look directly at
the constitution, which does not bar same-sex marriages
because the requirement that marriage is for a man and a
woman is not an essential. It's a guideline but not an
The attorney said she believes that some serving on the
synod PJC were "substituting their own personal beliefs
about the nature of homosexuality" in finding her client
guilty and already had their minds made up about the verdict
"before they came into the room."
"I do believe they're substituting their own personal
beliefs about the nature of homosexuality instead of
considering the constitutional issues raised by this case
because Janie had a constitutional right to do this," Taylor
told the Presbyterian News Service. "It [marriage between
man and woman] is not an essential. She's not required to
conform her practice and her faith because it's not an
essential. They just didn't even deal with that issue."
Taylor went on to say that she believes the PC(USA) is
The Synod of the Pacific is based in Petaluma, CA, and
oversees congregations in northern California, Nevada,
southern Idaho and Oregon. It's judicial proceedings came
after Redwoods Presbytery appealed the March 3, 2006
acquittal of Spahr by its PJC.
The latest church court ruling reflects the struggle within
the presbytery around the issue of same-sex marriage,
according to the Rev. Robert Conover, acting executive and
stated clerk of Redwoods Presbytery, which is based in Napa,
"It is true that a majority of our presbytery holds one
perspective on this issue and a significant portion holds
another," said Conover, when asked to comment on the ruling.
"We have worked very hard in our presbytery to live
respectfully with one another even in the midst of real
profound differences of opinion. I trust it is not only my
hope but the hope of the presbytery that we will be able to
continue to live in that respectful way with one another as
we move through this process," he said.
The two lesbian couples that are the focus of the case
supported the embattled minister when they heard about the
recent ruling. The women are Barbara Jean Douglass and
Connie Valois of Rochester, NY, and Sherril Figuera and
Annie Senechal of Guerneville, CA.
"We are confident that it's only a matter of time before our
church will come to honor our marriage and respect the deep
love and commitment we have for one another," Senechal
Spahr was called in 1991 as co-pastor of Downtown United
Presbyterian Church in Rochester, but the call was
invalidated by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial
Commission in November 1992.
Even without a call, the Rochester church invited her as a
"lesbian evangelist" and established That All May Freely
Serve (TAMFS) in 1993 to support her ministry, in
partnership with Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon,
TAMFS works for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual
and transgendered Presbyterians in the life of the church,
including their ordination as officers.
For 15 years now, Spahr has been traveling the country
mustering support for the ordination of gay and lesbian
Presbyterians, along the way building a network of regional
groups to help in the effort.