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Jane Spahr Acquittal on Same-sex Wedding Charges is Overturned

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    Jane Spahr acquittal on same-sex wedding charges is overturned Synod court orders rebuke for lesbian activist minister by Evan Silverstein Presbyterian News
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 27, 2007
      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.
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