PCUSA Lesbian Activist to Stand Trial for Conducting Same-sex Weddings
- If convicted by PJC, Jane Spahr could be removed from ministry
Lesbian Activist to Stand Trial for Conducting Same-sex Weddings
Feb. 6, 2006
by Evan Silverstein
PCUSA News Service
LOUISVILLE - The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, a Presbyterian lesbian
activist, will go on trial in California on March 2 for allegedly
performing two same-sex marriage services.
If found guilty by the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of Redwoods
Presbytery, Spahr could be removed from the ministry. The constitution
of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) specifically states that marriage
is a covenant only between a man and a woman.
The trial will start at 10 a.m. at the Presbyterian Church of the
Roses in Santa Rosa, CA.
Spahr, 63, a resident of San Rafael, CA, is director of That All May
Freely Serve (TAMFS), which works for the full inclusion of lesbian,
gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) Presbyterians in the life of
the church, including ordination as officers.
"I'm just grateful that people will hear about our love and to move
beyond stereotypes or mythology about who we are," Spahr told The
Presbyterian News Service. "I'm just grateful for the church to see us
as folks like anyone else who has dreams and love and partnership."
Spahr was originally charged in connection with co-officiating at a
February 2004 wedding in Ontario, Canada, of two men from New York state.
A trial was scheduled for April 2005 but was delayed because of
extensive legal negotiations.
Now Redwoods Presbytery, based in Napa, CA, has dropped the original
charge concerning the gay men and amended the complaint to charge
Spahr with marrying two lesbian couples.
She allegedly married the first couple, Constance Rose Valois and
Barbara Jean Allender Douglass, on Aug. 21, 2004, in Rochester, NY.
Those two women are affiliated with a Presbyterian church in
Rochester, but are inactive as a protest against the PC(USA)'s ban
against marrying and ordaining LGBT members, according to Spahr's
lawyer, Sara Taylor of San Francisco.
Spahr allegedly married the other couple, Annie Senechal and Cherrill
Figuera, on May 27, 2005, near Gerneville, CA, about 65 miles north of
San Francisco. Neither woman is Presbyterian, Taylor said.
"What she (Spahr) has elected to do is assert her right of private
conscience, which each individual has," Taylor said. "So, acting in
conscience, she's gone ahead and married these people. I think that
this church and this presbytery is going to have to establish whether
this (the ban on same-sex marriage) is an 'essential' to the church,
because people are permitted to act and to believe according to their
conscience in matters that are ... non-essential."
The presbytery's prosecuting committee asked that the facts of the
case be amended because, while Spahr co-officiated at the men's
wedding, it was not clear whether she had actually pronounced them
married, according to Stephen Taber, the presbytery's lawyer.
Spahr did not sign the marriage certificate. She is not licensed to
perform weddings in Ontario.
"We believed, based on the facts as we discovered them, that it could
not be shown beyond a reasonable doubt that she had actually performed
a wedding in violation of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church
(U.S.A.)," said Taber, of San Francisco.
"Prohibition, in our view, is a prohibition against 'performing' a
same-sex marriage, not a prohibition against 'attending' a same-sex
marriage ceremony," he said.
When Spahr was asked about the change in the complaint, she said she
was pleased that there would be no ambiguity about the legality of
performing same-gender weddings.
"As long as we get to the heart of the matter about couples who love
one another, and if they choose to be married," she said.
The current case alleges that Spahr, a member of Redwoods Presbytery
for more than a quarter-century, violated her ordination vows and the
PC(USA) Constitution by performing same-sex marriages.
The highest Presbyterian court, the Permanent Judicial Commission of
the General Assembly, ruled in 2000 that ministers may bless same-sex
unions, but cannot confuse or equate them with marriage.
Spahr will be tried before the PJC, an elected, seven-member court in
Redwoods Presbytery. The commission will consider four possible
censures: rebuke, rebuke with rehabilitation, temporary removal from
the church, or permanent removal from church office or membership.
Taylor said that Spahr would appeal any reprimand - even a rebuke, the
An investigating committee filed the charge with the presbytery PJC
after Spahr's participation in the same-sex wedding of the men was
brought to the attention of the regional governing body last March, in
an email sent by the Rev. James Berkley, a member of Seattle
Presbytery who at the time was the Issues Ministry Director for
Presbyterians for Renewal, a conservative renewal group that opposes
the ordination of gays and lesbians.
Spahr was called in 1991 as co-pastor of Downtown United Presbyterian
Church in Rochester, but that call was invalidated by the General
Assembly PJC in November 1992.
Even without a call, the Rochester church in 1993 invited her to serve
as a "lesbian evangelist" and established That All May Freely Serve to
support her ministry, in partnership with Westminster Presbyterian
Church in Tiburon, CA.
Since then, Spahr has traveled the country mustering support for the
ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians and building a network of
regional groups to help in the effort.
She is one of at least two Presbyterian ministers in recent years to
face charges for marrying same-sex couples.
The Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, a former pastor of the Mount Auburn
Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, lost his job and membership in
the church when the Presbytery of Cincinnati overwhelmingly voted to
remove him on June 16, 2003.
Van Kuiken appealed the decision to the PJC of the Synod of the
Covenant, which ruled in February that the presbytery erred in
removing him while he was appealing a previous presbytery decision.
However, he never applied for reinstatement.