Spahr found guilty on same-gender marriage charges

‘Journey of reconciliation’ needed as state, church law diverge, court says

August 30, 2010

The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, sitting on the stand during trial in front of a mural painted with a ship sailing on water, speaking.

The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr testifies at her trial for violating her ordination vows by conducting same-gender marriage ceremonies. —Photos by Anitra Kitts

NAPA, Calif.

The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr was convicted by the Presbytery of the Redwoods Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) Aug. 27 on three of four misconduct charges of performing same-gender marriage ceremonies during the time they were legal in the State of California.

Spahr, 68, an honorably retired member of the Presbytery of the Redwoods,  was charged with presiding over the June 20, 2008, marriage ceremony of a same gender couple while such marriages were recognized and recorded as legal by the State of California.

In addition Spahr was charged with presiding over an additional 15 same-gender marriages during that period of time.

The third charge was that in presiding over the secular marriage ceremonies, Spahr was violating her ordination vows by failing to obey an Authoritative Interpretation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Book of Order.

The denomination's constitution defines marriage as between "a man and a woman." The church’s highest court — the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission — has ruled that same-sex ceremonies cannot be conducted in such a way as to be held out as marriage ceremonies.

The PJC's vote on the three charges was 4-2 and it acquitted Spahr on a fourth charge of failing to "further the peace, unity and purity of the church."

Instead, the court said "We commend Dr. Spahr for helping us realize that peace without justice is no peace."

The PJC voted to verbally rebuke Spahr, the lightest of five possible punishments listed in the constitution, and to instruct her to "... avoid such offenses in the future." It then stayed the rebuke and injunction in case of an appeal.

The verdict was read after a two-day trial and 24 hours of deliberations. The court heard testimony from 10 of the couples married by Spahr, expert witness Deborah A. Krause, dean of academic affairs and New Testament professor at Eden Seminary, and extended testimony from Spahr.

When the verdict was announced gasps and sounds of weeping could be heard from the couples, who were seated behind Spahr in the gallery.

Even before the hearing was formally concluded, the couples as well as many observers pushed forward to form a tight circle of prayer, singing and comfort.

PJC members remained near their table after the hearing, until Spahr and some of the couples came and spoke to each one.

"I am deeply saddened," Spahr said after the judgement was read. "We had before this committee the most amazing people and couples and still they said 'No.' I'm stunned."

The accusations against Spahr were filed by a ruling elder from Redwoods Presbytery. The elder's identity was protected as is permitted in the Book of Order. The accusation was accompanied by written documents that included a certified marriage certificate of one same-gendered couple whose wedding Spahr performed, a newspaper article interviewing the participants and a copy of a previous General Assembly PJC (GAPJC) decision (Discipinary Case 318-12) on same-gender marriage from April 2008.

In that 11-page decision, Spahr — who has been active in sexual orientation/identity ministry within the PC(USA) for decades — was acquitted on appeal of charges that she performed two same-sex marriages in 2005. At that time same-gender marriage was not legal in California, so the court ruled that the ceremonies Spahr conducted could not rightfully be called marriage ceremonies, though she called them that at the time.

The binding authority of that ruling — the GAPJC cautioned Spahr as part of its Authoritative Interpretation of the constitution not to represent same-gender ceremonies as weddings — and the implications of the changing civil definition of marriage in California was at the center of the Aug. 24-27 hearing in the reception hall at Covenant Presbyterian Church here.

The prosecution counsel, Joanna Blackstone an elder member of the Redwoods Presbytery, argued that the previous GAPJC ruling included a clear mandate against representing same-sex unions as marriages as defined by the Book of Order. Blackstone, who praised Spahr’s life-long ministry within and on behalf of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) community, nevertheless argued that “there is a bright line” between marriages that are legally established by the state and marriages blessed by the church. 

"This is an ecclesiastical trial," Blackstone said, "and we are not here to debate civil law."

Blackstone stated that the 2008 decision of the GAPJC was binding and could not be modified or repealed except by another decision of the GAPJC or an action of the General Assembly.

"There are ways to seek that change, but this [judicial commission] does not have the authority," she said referring to several overtures on the definition of marriage submitted and debated at the recent July meeting of the General Assembly. "This [commission] does not have the authority to change the constitution," Blackstone declared throughout the course of the trial.

Spahr's defense counsel, Scott Clark, a lawyer and candidate for the ministry of the Word and Sacrament and the Rev. Beverly Brewster, a former trial lawyer, challenged the standing of  the 2008 GAPJC decision, saying that the PC(USA) constitution lists only two reasons for a disciplinary trial: a violation of scripture or a violation of the constitution.

While the 2008 ruling has the weight of an Authoritative Interpretation of the constitution, Clark argued, it was not an actual part of the constitution. Clark’s objection on that ground was rejected by the court, 4-1.

Clark and Brewster then argued that even if the GAPJC decision had standing, it was still subject to the, "... authority of Christ's Gospel, as revealed in Scripture and expressed in the constitution," Clark said.

"Your decision impacts real people in real lives," Clark said in his closing argument. "It's never, ever a choice between individuals and a book. Our faith is only as important as the way we live it out with each other." The defense cited Mark 3:1-6, a story of Jesus confronting religious leaders over a Sabbath healing, at several points in the trial.

The prosecution called no witnesses.

Krause testified for the defense on the scriptural understanding of marriage and how Spahr did or did not act in violation of her vows of ordination. She argued that the Book of Order definition of marriage is based on a contemporary understanding of partnership, while the scriptural understanding is based on the idea of a wife as property and subordinate to the husband.

Krause noted that one of the PC(USA) predecessor denominations, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., changed the definition of marriage in its constitution in the 1950s in response to cultural changes that opened up the opportunity for remarriage in a church after divorce.

Thus, Krause noted, marriage is a unique blending of state and church authority.

"Calvin taught that the civil authority creates the contract and the church solemnizes it," Krause said.  When the definition of marriage was in harmony between the two institutions, Krause continued, the 2008 authoritative interpretation had logic.

But when California and five other states plus the District of Columbia extended the legal definition of marriage to same-gender couples, Spahr and other ministers of the word and sacrament were left without guidance.

Spahr petitioned the GAPJC for additional guidance when the California Supreme Court legalized same-gender marriage a few months after the GAPJC's 2008 ruling. The GAPJC declined to issue clarification.

Thus, Krause argued, there was no violation of the ordination vows because there was no disciplinary advice to rely on after California legalized same-gender marriages.

Ten couples then testified over the course of about six hours. Many testified to how being married by Spahr was an extension of a pastoral relationship of years with her. Others spoke of how Spahr’s pre-marital counseling helped ground their intention to marry within their spiritual traditions. Several talked about how a formal wedding helped their families celebrate with them.

"You go to all these weddings of your brothers and sisters and then the nieces and the nephews and then, it's your turn," Constance Valois, who is married to Barbara Jean Douglass, said. "It brings the family in with all the cooking and the 'go do this' and 'go do that.'"

As a wedding present, an aunt put together a shellacked family tree that listed the couple on par with all other relationships in the family, Douglass said. “We stopped being invisible. There we were right in the middle.”

The prosecution declined to cross-examine all but the first couple, one of whom had served as Spahr's counsel in the 2008 case. "We've made no objection to the witnesses called by the defense who did not have to be here but have chosen to be here," Blackwell told the PJC. "Their testimony is being heard out of respect for their feelings," she said, "but we still have the facts and the law. The decision has to be made on that basis."

Spahr testified for several hours aobut the length and breadth of her ministry. Spahr, a grandmother and a resident of San Rafael, Calif., said she was deeply shaped by her first call in an urban Pittsburgh congregation as a white minister in an African-American community.

While serving her second call as a youth minister at San Rafael's First Presbyterian Church, she came to accept herself as a lesbian, which led to a period of time when she was not in active ministry. With a catch in her voice, Spahr described the acceptance she experienced from her sons and her then husband, Jim Spahr, who was present at the trial.

Spahr's path back into ministry led her to a ministry of  support to gay men and their families during the height of the HIV epidemic in San Francisco through the Metropolitan Community Church.

Her call to serve as co-pastor of Downtown Presbyterian Church in Rochester, N.Y., was blocked by the GAPJC. The congregation then hired her as a "lesbian evangelist," and she co-founded "That All May Freely Serve," a PC(USA)-related orgination that works for the full inclusion of LGBTY persons in the church.

"There can be no peace in this church until there is justice," Spahr said. "I am inviting the church into unity with these couples. These marriages are legal, they are honored by the (civil) institution and I want it to be honored by the church. As pastors we have a huge responsibility to perform marriages which are both a church and a civil function. We can not ask pastors to bifurcate themselves, to do one part of a marriage but not the other," Spahr said.

A group of people standing and sitting behind tables with microphones and green tablecloths.

The ten couples stand with Janie Spahr and Defense Counsel Scott Clark and Beverly Brewster for the reading of the decision. Jim Spahr, Sphar's former husband and long-time supporter, sits with Prosecuting counsel JoAn Blackstone who is a friend of the Spahr family.

PJC members were clearly uncomfortable as the decision was read. "... we call upon the church to re-examine our own fear and ignorance that continues to reject the inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," Jim Jones, moderator of the commission and elder member of First Presbyterian Church, Napa, read from the podium. "... We say this believing that we have in our own Book of Order conflicting and even contradictory rules and regulations that are against the Gospel ... marriage can be between same gender as well as opposite gender persons, and we, as a church, need to be able to respond to this reality as Dr. Jane Spahr has done with faithfulness and compassion.

"Notwithstanding the foregoing, we are constrained to accept that the following language in GAPJC Disclipinary Case 318-12 is authoritative and should be followed until and unless modified."

The decision concluded, "We implore the Synod and General Assembly levels of our church to listen to these testimonies, which are now part of this record, to take them to heart, and to do what needs to be done to move us as a church forward on this journey of reconciliation."

"I am deeply proud of the PJC and all involved with the process," Redwoods Executive Presbyter and Stated Clerk Robert Conover said, "and I am profoundly moved by the sadness of those who feel hurt by this decisions."

Spahr spoke to waiting media as she left the building with a number of her supporters. "See us?" she said. "Here we are. We're still here."

Anitra Kitts is a free-lance writer in northern California and a candidate for the ministry under the care of the Presbytery of the Cascades. 

  1. In Matthew 19 and Mark 10 - the Lord Jesus Himself defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Do we need any more debate than that?

    by Sean Steinke

    May 6, 2012

  2. I am an ordained deacon and elder and gay. I find it detestable that the church continues to cling to the bigoted and hateful stance that has resulted in this ruling. Shame on the Presbyterian Church USA. After decades of work with this so-called church, why should I continue to be a part of it? Finding it hard to answer that question...

    by Darryl Christian

    February 22, 2012

  3. It's sad to see so many people who are not supportive of love. Though it may be stated in the Bible that homosexual practices are an abomination, in the same book (Leviticus) it is stated that children who disobey their parents should be put to death. In this day and age, I find the truth hard to accept, that homosexuals may not be married in PC(USA). Parents give children time outs when they do not listen. I guess the only thing I want to know is how on earth and in Heaven is a loving, caring, committed, monogamous, Christ-centered relationship, just so happening to be between two men or women, NOT glorifying to God? Maybe some of the men and women who cheat on their spouses and/or get divorced from them should remove the log from their own eye before attempting to remove the SPECK from their brothers'. Thank you for your time and mau God's love and grace prevail on earth as in Heaven.

    by Laurel Steinetz

    December 31, 2010

  4. Thank heavens we can say that it was voted that Jane was in error to have married same sex couples.

    by Gail Michael

    September 9, 2010

  5. Although I am still kinda new to the Presbyterian Church, I tend to agree that marriage should be between a man and a woman. I was raised in a conservative Baptist family that shares this conviction but we do not shut out the family members who are in same sex relationships. I prefer instead pray for them that God fill them with the conviction that our Lord Jesus Christ still cares for them no matter what.

    by christina wallace

    September 8, 2010

  6. It must be difficult to be homosexual and still want to be Presbyterian. I feel sorry for those people. However, if the denomination changes for them, it will be at least that difficult for the others of us. If PC(USA) turns its back on the Bible, it will be difficult for us to reconcile the conflict of wanting to be true to God by believing His word, vs. still wanting to be Presbyterian. True, the Bible does not say homosexual marriage is a sin. But… Homosexual marriage is not the issue. Homosexual behavior is. And the Bible does say homosexual behavior is a sin and nothing in the New Testament says otherwise, whether you wish to read that into a verse or a theory or a feeling, or not. It is possible other denominations follow their conscience a different way and perform those marriages. If folks are more comfortable with those denominations’ Bible interpretations, it might be best if they go there, where the people share their beliefs and where they can be comfortable. Frankly, if they successfully pressure PC(USA) to change to suit them, the rest of us will, ironically, have the same two choices the homosexuals have now – we will either have to change to suit the denomination or change denominations. A hard choice -- most of us are 3rd or 4th generation Presbyterians. Seems a shame the many might have to stop being Presbyterian to keep the few happy. God bless the Presbyterian Church and God bless Presbyterians. And Presbyterians, bless God.

    by Agnes Doyle

    September 7, 2010

  7. The PJC pointed out the conflict within our church consitution when it said, " In addition, we call upon the church to re­examine our own fear and ignorance that continues to reject the inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.(G­3.0401c) We say this believing that we have in our own Book of Order conflicting and even contradictory rules and regulations that are against the Gospel." As long as the PCUSA keeps this binding rule within the Book Of Order our marriage laws will continue to cause the Gospel to stumble; and for that, our church will be limited in our ability and integrity to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

    by Dan Christian

    September 7, 2010

  8. I suggest you all read the whole of the PJC's 'ruling' as it is written in a way that I found to be helpful. It can be found on the Presbytery of Redwoods webpage. Read the whole of it God abides BBGMcG

    by Bobbie McGarey

    September 5, 2010

  9. 1 John 4:8 "God is Love."

    by Sarah I

    September 4, 2010

  10. I am saddened that the PJC felt bound, as the prosecutor declared, by the "facts and the law." The constitution of our church has never been able to keep up with the movings of the Holy Spirit. Thank God Janey Spahr and thousand of other members of the PCUSA try to do so. I believe Dr. Jane Spahr will go down in Presbyterian history as a courageous and faithful prophetic voice of the church. Jack Sharp, Baltimore

    by Jack Sharp

    September 4, 2010

  11. The PJC lifted up the first of the four definitional statements about marriage in the Directory for Worship of the Book of Order: "Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family" [W-4.9001]. The woman and man language of the following 3 definitional statements conflicts with this and with reality in six jurisdictions. There is no prohibition against same-gender marriage in the Book of Order or in the Bible. Rev. Spahr was found to be following the mandatory provisions for inclusion in the Book of Order and faithfully following the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our highest authority. She should have been acquitted.

    by Beverly Brewster

    September 3, 2010

  12. 1. Paul's letter to the church at Rome is quite clear; go back and re-read Chapter 1 beginning with verse 26. 2. If the BOO/nFOB changes to include same-gender "marriage" you can kiss the PC(USA), now down to only 2 million communicant members, good bye. 3. The zealous minority continues to push their personal agenda, witness the return of the proposal to change the requirements for ordination. If the current proposed changes pass, this elder will process "renunciation" to the PC(USA and find a church in Christ that still believes that the Bible is "the word of the Lord...thanks be to God."

    by Dana

    September 3, 2010

  13. Jane Spahr officiated a wedding for myself and the love of my life, Linda, on December 2008. While this time frame made us "not legally married" in the eyes of Calfornia and the federal government, in the eyes of God and in the eyes of our family and friends -- and most importly as an affirmation of love and not hate and fear, we will consider ourselves spouses for life. Janie Spahr practices and models what should be the actions of all churches: to practice compassion and peace and justice and support of love. How can this Church truly hold its head up and talk about compassion and peace and justice and yet in actions deny compassion and peace and justice to same sex loving couples.

    by Judith Kaye

    September 2, 2010

  14. I'm a formerly ordained Deacon and Elder in PC(USA), but when my daughter came out as a lesbian 11 years ago, she had to quit her Associate Pastor position at a PC(USA) church. Because PC(USA) continues their archaic thinking, my husband and I transferred our membership to the United Church of Christ tht states "God is Still Speaking"!

    by Jerri Columpus

    September 1, 2010

  15. It takes a 'maverick and individual acts of defiance' to generate change so that all are welcome at the table.

    by Carolee Mech

    August 31, 2010

  16. God's justice is about the punishment we deserve for our sins. Homosexual behavior is clearly a sin per the Bible. If homosexuals and their supporters want justice, they are rejecting God's graceful forgiveness of sin which is repented and ceased. Civil justice is another matter, and one not within the jurisdiction of PCUSA clergy or its constitution.

    by John M

    August 31, 2010

  17. Correction: the 2008 case is 218-12 (paragraphs 14 and 42) It will be another 200 years before we reach the 318th GA

    by Steve Salyards

    August 31, 2010

  18. Why ask for comments if you won't publish them? in the interests of free speech and freedom of religion, you should be willing to publish comments of those whose views do not reflect your own. I've tried to comment twice on two stories and still nothing is published...:(

    by John Stuart

    August 31, 2010

  19. We either have a Constitution or we don't. I've heard many people preach connectionalism in the PCUSA, but Rev Spahr has repeatedly gone against that concept with her maverick and individual acts of defiance.

    by John Stuart

    August 30, 2010

  20. Correction: The previous GAPJC decision (paragraph 13) is 218-12. It will be another couple of centuries before we get to the 318th General Assembly

    by Steve Salyards

    August 30, 2010

  21. I was an elder commissioner to the GA in Minneapolis. I was also on the Civil union and Marriage Committee. I am deeply saddened by our Church's stance to exclude people who wish to be Presbyterians, be married and just happen to be the same gender. God created us all in His image-not just heterosexuals. I shared the love with my husband for 19 years until he died and I cannot believe that we should deny this privilege to people who are same gendered.

    by Jean Garrett

    August 30, 2010