LOUISVILLE -- The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — the highest court in the church — has issued two technical rulings that leave unresolved the extent to which conscientious objection to the church’s sexual conduct standards may disqualify candidates for ordination.

The Nov. 2 rulings involve Lisa Larges, a lesbian candidate for the ministry in San Francisco Presbytery, and the Rev. Paul Capetz, a gay theology professor in the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area who set aside his ordination in 2000 and then sought reinstatement in 2007.

The rulings effectively allow San Francisco Presbytery to proceed to examine Larges for possible ordination and the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area to restore Capetz to ordained ministry in the PC(USA).

Larges and Capetz both relied on an authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108a of the Book of Order issued by the 2006 General Assembly. As part of its approval of the report from the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the church, the interpretation allows candidates for ordination and installation as church officers to declare a “scruple” or conscientious objection to any provision of the church’s Constitution.

It is then up to the ordaining body to determine whether the scruple is a sufficient enough departure from the essentials of the Reformed faith to be disqualifying.

Though it applies to any constitutional provision, the declaring of scruples has so far only been utilized in objection to G-6.0106b, which requires of church officers “fidelity within the covenant of marriage or chastity in singleness.”

Larges, who has been a candidate for the ministry for more than 20 years, was certified by San Francisco Presbytery as “ready for examination with a departure [scruple]” on Jan. 15, 2008 by a vote of 167-151.

Three minister members of the presbytery filed a remedial complaint with the Synod of the Pacific PJC, alleging that the presbytery’s actions and those of its Committee on Preparation for Ministry were improper. They sought to have the presbytery’s vote voided and Larges removed from the presbytery’s roll of candidates.

The synod PJC agreed that the presbytery had erred by addressing the scruple prematurely — during the certification for readiness rather than during a subsequent examination for ordination — and voided the January 2008 vote. It refused to instruct the presbytery to remove Larges from the roll of candidates.

The three San Francisco Presbytery complainants appealed that ruling, telling the court that “the burning question to which the church needs a clear answer” is whether scrupling allows a presbytery to “waive” constitutional ordination standards.

The court didn’t address that question, instead affirming the synod PJC’s ruling that the proper time for a presbytery to consider a scruple and whether it is disqualifying is during the examination for ordination, not during the CPM’s certification for readiness stage of the process.

Larges is scheduled to be examined for ordination by San Francisco Presbytery on Nov. 10.           

At that time, the court ruled, the presbytery is required “to determine whether the Candidate has expressed an interpretation of Scripture that represents a serious departure from essentials of Reformed faith and polity, and if it determines that she has, it must then decide whether the departure infringes on the rights and views of others or obstructs the constitutional governance of the church.”

For the second time, the GAPJC ruled that the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area did not err when it voted to restore Capetz’ ordination in January 2008. A professor at United Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, Capetz had set aside his ordination in 2000, four years after the PC(USA) added the commonly-called “fidelity and chastity” provision to the Book of Order. But when scrupling was reinstituted in 2006, he sought restoration to ordained ministry, also declaring conscientious objection to G-6.0106b.

In a related March 2009 decision that affirmed the presbytery’s decision, the GAPJC also ruled that the Synod of Lakes and Prairies PJC must conduct a trial to determine if the presbytery had in effect waived an ordination requirement.

That trial was held on May 12, 2009, and the synod PJC ruled that the presbytery acted properly, adding that it “took extraordinary care to make it clear that their decision applied only to the current expression of [Capetz’] departure and was not making policy or setting precedent….”

Capetz has repeatedly said he will not “take a vow of celibacy.” The GAPJC said that a remedial case (alleging faulty process by governing bodies) is not the appropriate way to address an ordained person’s alleged misconduct.

“If there is any question about Capetz’ conduct, including whether he has led a life in obedience to Scripture and in compliance with the historic confessional standards of the church,” the court said, “he, like any other officer of the church, may be held accountable for his conduct under the Rules of Discipline.”