The Rev. Jane Spahr, left, hugs the Rev. Annie Steinberg-Behrman before… (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press )
SAN ANSELMO, Calif. — Days after President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, the Presbyterian Church's Northern California governing body refused to rebuke a retired minister for marrying gays and lesbians when it was legal in California.
The Presbytery of the Redwoods, which governs churches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border, voted 74 to 18 Tuesday to reject the church's official denunciation and instead support the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, who had been found guilty by an ecclesiastical court of violating the Presbyterian Constitution and her ordination vows for marrying 16 same-sex couples.
Church officials said they believe that never before in the history of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a presbytery defied the wishes of its highest court in this fashion.
Opponents and supporters of gay and lesbian unions called the vote a historic event in the life of the church, which, like other mainstream Protestant denominations, has been struggling with the issue of sexual orientation for decades.
"The presbytery's decision and the president's decision are both part of the progress that we're seeing in our culture," said the Rev. Scott Clark, part of a team of lawyers representing Spahr. "More and more people actually know lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks, and they have to acknowledge our full dignity and our full value."
Spahr, 69, was found guilty in 2010 for marrying couples after the California Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians could wed and before voters passed Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage.
Nearly all of the couples Spahr was charged with marrying attended hearings on her behalf. But on Tuesday, expecting a public rebuke, most stayed home.
"They were so hurt, many of them, that they wrote to say they can't even come to this meeting to hear one more time that my relationship is second-class," an emotional Spahr said after the vote. "But today, today, this presbytery said we're equal.... Love and justice became friends here today."
The lower church court that found Spahr guilty two years ago praised her "faithful compassion" and her decades of ministry to gays and lesbians throughout the country. But it ruled that she had "persisted in a pattern or practice of disobedience" and said she must be censured.
The lesbian grandmother appealed that ecclesiastical ruling all the way to the Presbyterian version of the Supreme Court, where she lost her case in February. The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission ruled that Spahr should be rebuked by her presbytery and also upheld a warning that pastors should not represent the marriage of gay or lesbian couples as Presbyterian marriages.
"If the rebuke against Janie had been delivered today, then all ministers who marry same-gender couples in jurisdictions where it is legal would have a disciplinary precedent against them," said Rev. Beverly Brewster, another of Spahr's attorneys. "That's what we avoided today."
The Presbytery of the Redwoods' action comes at a time of great change for both secular and religious America.
Last week, Obama said in a televised interview that his views of same-sex marriage have evolved over the years, and "it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."
But also last week, North Carolina voters approved Amendment One, changing their state Constitution to define marriage as the legal union of a man and a woman.
Although the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) does not explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage, it defines marriage as "a civil contract between a woman and a man." Through the course of Spahr's three trials, that definition was upheld.
However, the Presbyterian General Assembly — the church governing body that meets every two years — is poised to vote on the issue when it meets in Pittsburgh in July. When it met in 2010, it voted to allow gays and lesbians to be ordained as ministers; a year ago, that decision was ratified by a majority of the church's 173 presbyteries.
But since the issue began to heat up in 2007, an estimated 200 congregations have voted to leave the PCUSA, and about 200 more are in the process of leaving, said Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee.
Most left because of these issues, she said, and most have decided to join denominations that hew more closely to a strict interpretation of the Scripture.
In July, "the church could redefine marriage or create enough space for pastors to have the discretion to perform same-sex weddings in states where it is legal to do so," Fowler LaBerge said. "It sounds to me as if the Redwoods Presbytery is pressing that issue."
Although the presbytery members were supportive of Spahr on Tuesday, their discussions before the vote were somber and emotional.
Colleen Soldate, an elder with the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa, told the gathering that she was confused.
"To me, being a Christian takes discipline and requires focus on Jesus Christ," she said. "It seems that we have forgotten to focus on God's word, that marriage is between a man and a woman."
But Clark's motion, which was overwhelmingly passed, asked that the group oppose the rebuke "as inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ." The rebuke, he said, "creates second-class citizens and perpetuates the harmful idea that we are somehow children of a lesser God."