March 15, 2004
Charges filed against gay minister
Californian accused of 'marrying' a lesbian, then "marrying' two
by Alexa Smith
PCUSA News Service
LOUISVILLE -- Another disciplinary case has been filed against an
openly gay woman minister -- this time for having officiated at a
civil ceremony in San Francisco last month featuring an exchange of
vows between two lesbians.
The Rev. Ann L. Petker of Berkeley, CA, is accused of being wed to
her lesbian partner one day in mid-February, then conducting
a "marriage" service for a lesbian couple the next day.
Photographs of the ceremony at at the San Francisco civic center were
published on the Web site of the gay advocacy group, That All May
Freely Serve, under the byline of Jennifer G. Shepherd, news editor.
In it, Anne Towler says Petker had "married" Towler and her partner,
Virginia Thibeaux, a former classmate of Petker's at San Francisco
Petker was not quoted in the story, which was headlined, "Novato
couple's historic wedding."
The story recounts that Petker "married" her own partner the previous
day, then returning to the center to officiate at the Towler-Thibeaux
On Friday, March 12, the Los Angeles-based Presbytery of the Pacific
was trying to determine whether Petker is still a pastor in the
Presbyterian Church (USA). The presbytery's stated clerk, the Rev.
Frank Marshall, said Petker had started the process of transferring
to the United Church of Christ, a denomination that allows the
ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians, unlike the PC(USA).
If the transfer has been made, the case would be moot.
In the UCC, according to Barbara Powell, the denomination's public
information officer, the terms "union," "commitment service"
and "marriage" are interchangeable.
Efforts to reach Petker were unsuccessful.
The UCC's Northern California Conference told the Presbyterian News
Service (PNS) that Petker is seeking "privilege of call," meaning she
would have the right to seek a call in UCC churches.
Officials said there was nothing in the conference records to
indicate that Petker is not still a PC(USA) pastor.
While the PC(USA) has consistently supported civil rights for same-
sex partners, it does not endorse homosexual conjugal practice
as "marriage." A 2002 judicial case, Benton vs. the Presbytery of
Hudson River, held that Presbyterian clergy can perform same-sex
unions, but must clearly distinguish such blessing ceremonies from
Christian marriage, which is reserved for a man and woman.
Four accusations have been filed against Petker by attorney Paul Rolf
Jensen, a controversial member of a Presbyterian congregation in
California who has filed more than 20 cases against Presbyterian
ministers and elders in the past two years, charging them with
violating their ordination vows by ordaining or marrying gays and
When a disciplinary case is filed, a presbytery is required to form a
committee to investigate the allegations.
Only one of the four cases resulted in a revocation of ordination --
that of the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken of Cincinnati, OH -- and that was
overturned on a procedural technicality. The Presbytery of Cincinnati
is investigating a second accusation filed against Van Kuiken by
Jensen accuses Petker of:
*Willfully and deliberately violating her ordination vows and
disrupting the peace, unity and purity of the church;
*Performing a "marriage" ceremony of a same-sex couple;
*Renouncing the jurisdiction of the PC(USA) by refusing to comply
with its constitution and with prior decisions of the church's
*Practicing the sin of homosexuality without repentance.
Jensen argues that, by being "married" in an "illegal civil ceremony"
and then performing what is termed a "marriage ceremony," Petker
has "crossed the line of acceptable advocacy."
"She has no right to disregard her solemn vow to obey the
constitution of the Presbyterian Church," he says.
Jensen made his previous allegations against Petker in 2002. They
were dismissed by the presbytery's investigating committee for lack
Jensen accused Petker of deliberating violating her ordination vows
and renouncing the jurisdiction of the PC(USA) by defying the
church's constitution through "practicing without repentance the sin
But sexual practice is a difficult thing to prove, as Jensen and
In the 2002 Benton decision, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial
Commission was unambiguous in its ruling that Christian marriage is
between a man and a woman only. While it gives latitude to ministers
and sessions in addressing the pastoral care of members, it says
it "would not be proper" for a PC(USA) pastor to perform a same-sex
union that "the minister determines to be the same as a marriage
The PJC also instructed sessions to prohibit the use of church
facilities for same-gender services that may be construed as the same
as a marriage ceremony.
The court also ruled that ministers conducting same-sex may not use
liturgical forms from services of Christian or civil marriage in the
conduct of same-gender ceremonies. "Ministers and sessions should
take special care to avoid any confusion of such services with
services of Christian marriage," it said.
Most of Jensen's cases have been dismissed on technicalities, but
Jensen said he feels confident that the Presbytery of the Pacific
will "investigate and reach the right decision" -- assuming that
Petker is a PC(USA) minister.
Referring to the exchange of vows, he said, "There is no lack of
evidence this time."