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Minister who wed lesbians is cleared of misconduct

Presbyterian panel says she did no wrong because same-sex rites are not marriages.

April 30, 2008|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

The highest court of the Presbyterian Church USA has found that a California minister did not violate the church's constitution when she officiated at the weddings of same-sex couples in 2004 and 2005.

The decision, announced Tuesday by the church's permanent judicial commission, cleared the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr of San Rafael of misconduct and lifted an earlier ruling of censure against her by a regional church court.

In the decision, the Louisville, Ky.-based panel found that the ceremonies Spahr had performed for the two lesbian couples could not be considered marriages.

"The ceremonies that are the subject of this case were not marriages . . . ," the high court said. "These were ceremonies between women, not between a man and a woman."

The commission said the lower court had "found Spahr guilty of doing that which by definition cannot be done."

Spahr, 65, who has fought for many years for full inclusion of gay and lesbian Presbyterians in the national church, said she was grateful she had been cleared of the misconduct charge but disappointed by the finding on marriage.

"In not seeing same-gender marriages as marriages, the commission holds to the idea that we are separate and unequal," Spahr said in a telephone interview. "And that causes me great pain."

A member of one of the couples named in the case said she also saw the decision as mixed.

"We're grateful that Janie has not been censured but hurt that the church does not recognize our relationship as equal," said Sherrill Figuera, 45, of Guerneville, Calif. "It's a marriage. It's the same."

The Presbyterian Church USA, the nation's largest Presbyterian group, with 2.3 million members, is among many mainline Protestant denominations struggling to reconcile conflicting views on biblical authority and gays' role in the church.

Spahr, who came out in the 1970s after a 13-year marriage that produced two children, retired last year as the national director of That All May Freely Serve, an organization that advocates for gay clergy candidates and full acceptance by the church of its gay and lesbian members.

In the decision, the court majority emphasized that the church's position since 1991 had been to allow ministers to bless same-sex unions, as long as the ceremonies differed from traditional marriages and were not represented as weddings.

In a dissent, five court members said that the panel overstepped its role and had tried to amend the definition of marriage "to include prohibitions."

"Because a same-sex ceremony cannot be a marriage . . . it should not be necessary to say more," the members wrote.

Sara Taylor, Spahr's attorney, said she and her client also were troubled by parts of the ruling.

"It's worrying that the court seems to be attempting to legislate future marriages and restrict them," Taylor said.

Robert Conover, stated clerk of the Presbytery of the Redwoods, which first brought charges against Spahr for the two ceremonies, took a more nuanced view. "I'm sure there is disappointment among those who hoped for a more definitive ruling, but I hope people can also be grateful," he said. "The commission was very clear about what the constitutional standard is and very clear that it is our mandate to work for justice for all people."

Spahr said her faith and ministry compelled her to preside over ceremonies for the two couples named in the case, Barbara Jean Douglass and Connie Valois of Rochester, N.Y., and Figuera and Annie Senechal, along with many others over the years.

"Can you imagine if I said no to these couples, after they come to me and want me to work with them?" Spahr said.

She said she was now counseling six couples, three gay and three straight, and said she expected to officiate at weddings for all of them.

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rebecca.trounson@latimes.com

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