SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A sharply divided high court of the U.S. Presbyterian Church on Tuesday upheld the ecclesiastical rebuke levied against a lesbian minister for performing same-sex weddings in California.
The decision affirming the censure of the Rev. Jane Spahr means that Presbyterian ministers continue to face church discipline for following their conscience in treating gay and lesbian couples the same as heterosexuals when it comes to marriage.
The case surrounding Spahr, a 69-year-old grandmother, highlights deep divisions within the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and its 2 million members, as well as other mainstream Protestant denominations, over gay marriage as clergy are increasingly asked to bless such unions.
Spahr’s lawyers estimate at least 10 percent of congregants in the Presbyterian Church, which recently removed prohibitions on openly gay clergy and has long baptized the children of same-sex couples, identify themselves as gay or lesbian.
“I feel sad for the church because I think it’s such a right and loving thing to be with couples on this journey of marriage and deep intimacy with one another,” Spahr, of San Francisco, said in a telephone interview after the decision was issued.
“When couples come to us our first response should be, ‘Yes. How can we be supportive of you and your family?'” she said.
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, a panel of 15 Presbyterian ministers and elders from around the country who serve as the church’s highest judicial body, split 9-6 in favor of affirming Spahr’s 2010 censure by a lower ecclesiastical appeals court.
The censure is a reprimand that in and of itself carries no further form of discipline.
“The issue is not simply the same-sex ceremony,” the majority wrote in its opinion. “It is the misrepresentation that the Presbyterian Church ... recognizes the ceremony and the resulting relationship to be a marriage in the eyes of the church.”
The six dissenters, plus a seventh commissioner who sided with the majority in upholding the rebuke, all called on church authorities to reconcile what they saw as a conflict between church doctrine excluding same-gender matrimony and the Bible’s directive for the church to fully welcome everyone.
The dissenters wrote that Spahr’s censure perpetuates the notion that gay couples “are children of a lesser God.”
“As Christians, we claim the high goal of loving and including all, then seek to exclude the (gay) community. This second-class ... treatment proclaims the hypocrisy of our present interpretations,” they said.
Spahr said she was optimistic that the church legislative assembly might amend Presbyterian doctrine to finally allow gay marriage when that body next meets in July in Pittsburgh.
The Presbyterian Church would not be the first religious faith to do so. Reform Jews, Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ allow their clergy to perform same-gender weddings. The United Methodist Church, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, strictly forbids it, and the Episcopal Church is divided over the question.
Tuesday’s Presbyterian decision, following a hearing before the judicial commission on Friday in San Antonio, Texas, comes as secular support for gay marriage has gained ground in federal court and in the legislatures of several states in recent weeks.
In Washington state the governor last week signed into law a measure to legalize same-sex matrimony, and a committee of the Maryland state Senate approved a gay marriage bill on Tuesday. Earlier this month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals handed gay rights advocates another victory by declaring a voter-approved gay marriage ban in California to be unconstitutional.
The 2010 church censure of Spahr stemmed from her officiating the nuptials of 16 same-sex couples in California.
They were among some 18,000 gay weddings performed and legally recognized in that state during a six-month window between May 2008, when the California Supreme Court struck down a ban on same-sex matrimony, and November of that year, when voters approved a state constitutional amendment reinstating it.
It was the California gay marriage ban that the 9th Circuit struck down, though the effect of its ruling remains on hold while judicial review of that case continues.
Ordained in 1974, two years before coming to the self-realization she was a lesbian, Spahr made headlines in 1992 when she became the first openly gay pastor asked to preside over a U.S. Presbyterian congregation.
While church courts denied her the Rochester, New York, parish, they have never moved to strip Spahr of her ordination, and she went on to minister to gays and lesbians throughout the country as a traveling pastor.
The church last spring formally opened the ranks of its clergy to homosexuals in a move that triggered a schism in the denomination, prompting a group opposed to gay clergy to form a new church called the Evangelical Convent Order of Presbyterians.
Spahr was censured once before, in August 2007, for performing lesbian marriages in California and New York in 2004 and 2005, before gay marriage was legal in either state. But the high commission later lifted that rebuke, finding then that Spahr did not violate Presbyterian law prohibiting homosexual marriage because church doctrine recognized no such thing.
Ministers may bless unions between two men or between two women, but pastors “shall not state, imply, or represent that a same-sex ceremony is a marriage,” that decision held.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Tim Gaynor