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Presbyterian Church rebukes "lesbian evangelist"

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The U.S. Presbyterian Church has rebuked one of its ministers who describes herself as a “lesbian evangelist” for presiding over two gay weddings, officials said on Friday.

Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, 65, in 1992 became the first openly lesbian Presbyterian minister to be appointed a local church pastor -- a move later overturned by the church’s top judicial body. She since has been an outspoken advocate for gay rights -- and gay marriage rites.

She has challenged the church by presiding over hundreds of gay unions, many of which were not called marriages. She faced the church’s judicial scrutiny after marrying two men in 2004 and two women in 2005.

Church rules and precedent cases “make clear that ministers are not to conduct ceremonies represented as marriages between persons of the same sex,” the Synod of the Pacific Permanent Judicial Commission ruled in an appeal decision made public on Friday. “Regardless of the expression of conscience by the Rev. Dr. Spahr, she may not circumvent the standards of the church.”

A local governing body overseeing Spahr’s ministry had said she did not commit an offence, but the higher church body overruled that ruling and said it would impose “the censure of rebuke.”

“There are marriages done out of great love,” Spahr told Reuters. “Where else would we want love to be celebrated but in the church?”

“This kind of second-class treatment perpetuates not only myth and prejudice but also, in some way, gives people license for violence,” she said.

In an interview, Spahr, a San Rafael, California resident who retires at the end of this month, said she would appeal the decision to the Presbyterian Church’s highest judicial body.

Two members of the eight-person judicial commission dissented on some aspects of the ruling against Spahr, a San Francisco Theological Seminary graduate ordained in 1974.

“I believe the issue of freedom of conscience importantly distinguishes her actions from wilful disobedience, and does not require censure,” Linda Lee and Susan Barnes wrote.

The 2.3 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA), which traces its history back to 16th century Protestant reformation, is the largest body of that denomination in the United States.

The San Francisco area has been one of the centres of the debate over gay marriage after its mayor allowed gays to marry in 2004 before a court ordered a halt.

Additional reporting by Michael Conlon in Chicago