The highest court of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has found that a Northern California minister did not violate denominational law when she officiated at the weddings of two lesbian couples.
The ruling announced Tuesday by the Louisville, Kentucky-based court overturns a decision against the Rev. Jane Spahr last year. A regional judicial committee had found Spahr guilty of misconduct and gave her a rebuke — the lightest possible punishment.
The church's high court found that Spahr did not violate the church's constitution because the ceremonies she performed were not marriages, even though that is what the veteran minister, herself a lesbian, called them. The constitution defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman.
"The ceremonies that are the subject of this case were not marriages. ... These were ceremonies between women, not between a man and a woman," the 12-person court said, adding that the midlevel court "found Spahr guilty of doing that which by definition cannot be done."
Spahr, 65, was the first minister of her faith to be tried for officiating the weddings of gay couples and one of several Presbyterian ministers facing disciplinary action for similar offenses.
Ministers may perform blessings
The court majority stressed that the church's position since 1991 has been to allow ministers to bless same-sex unions as long as they don't mimic traditional marriages, suggesting that pastors who follow in Spahr's footsteps could be subject to future discipline.
"In holding that Spahr was not guilty as charged, this Commission does not hold that there are no differences between same-sex ceremonies and marriage ceremonies," the majority wrote. "Officers of the PCUSA authorized to perform marriages shall not state, imply or represent a same-sex ceremony is a marriage."
That finding drew a dissent from five members of the tribunal.
"Because a same-sex ceremony cannot be a marriage ... it should not be necessary to say more," the dissenters wrote. "It is not the place of this Commission to go any farther and step into the legislative realm."
Spahr's lawyer, Sara Taylor, called the court majority's attempt to prevent pastors from presiding at same-sex weddings an illogical act of "judicial activism."
"It's saying, 'There is not a prohibition, but don't do it again,'" Taylor said.
Spahr, who retired last year as the head of a church-sanctioned ministry for gay and lesbian Presbyterians, said she had no intention of abiding by a ruling she considered "duplicitous."
"It really doesn't matter to me what they might do. I must do what I have been called to do," she said.
Acting on a complaint brought by a minister in Washington state, the Presbytery of the Redwoods, which oversees 52 churches along the Pacific coast, brought the charges against Spahr in 2005 for marrying the couples from New York and California.
In 2006, a Northern California church court that found Spahr had acted within her rights as a minister when she interpreted the church doctrine to permit her to perform acts of conscience such as presiding over the weddings. The presbytery appealed the ruling to the church's regional judicial commission.
Many Protestant denominations are divided over how they should interpret what the Bible says about homosexuality. In the Presbyterian Church, several theologically conservative congregations have announced plans to break away from the denomination.