The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s highest court has reinstated a ‘not guilty’ verdict on charges that Presbyterian minister Jean Southard violated the PC(USA) constitution and her ordination vows by conducting a same-gender marriage ceremony in Massachusetts after that state legalized gay marriage in 2008.

In overturning a “guilty” verdict it said was mistakenly handed down by the Synod of the Northeast Permanent Judicial Commission on appeal of a “not guilty” verdict rendered earlier by Boston Presbytery’s PJC, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission ruled Feb. 8 that state laws like Massachusetts’ do not trump PC(USA) law — which defines marriage as between a man and a woman (W-4.9001) and that the liturgies for marriages and same-gender unions should not be confused or misconstrued.

But the commission concluded that previous precedents and authoritative interpretations of the PC(USA) “involved relationships that did not constitute legal marriages as defined by the applicable civil law.”

Thus, the GAPJC said, its ruling hinged “on whether the Massachusetts law defining this relationship as a legal marriage changes the impact of the definitions in W-4.9001. This Commission holds that it does not.”

The GAPJC ruling continued: “While the PC(USA) is free to amend its definition of marriage, a change in state law does not amend the Book of Order. It is the responsibility of the church, following the processes provided in the Constitution for amendment, to define what the PC(USA) recognizes as a “Christian marriage.”

The facts behind the case are not in dispute. On March 1, 2008, Southard officiated at a marriage ceremony between Jennifer Irene Duhamel Sara Jane Herwig  at First Presbyterian Church of Waltham, Mass., where the two women were longtime active members. The ceremony was characterized as a “Christian marriage,” and was so recorded in the records of First Church-Waltham.  

Southard was found “not guilty” by Boston Presbyery’s PJC in August 2009. The synod PJC overturned that ruling on June 25, 2010 and remanded the case back to the Boston PJC to determine Southard’s level of punishment.

“This was an error,” the GAPJC said. “When an appellate permanent judicial commission reverses a not guilty finding, it must remand the case for a new trial, rather than imposing its own guilty verdict.”

The high court intimated that its decision may have been different if the ceremony Southard conducted had occurred before the court ruled on Spahr vs. Redwoods Presbytery a month later.

In that case, the Rev. Jane Spahr was found not to have conducted same-sex marriages because, but PC(USA) constitutional definition marriages are between a man and woman.

In that case, the GAPJC clarified and the commission in the Southard decision “reiterates that officers of the PC(USA) who are authorized to perform marriages, when performing a ceremony for a same-gender couple, shall not state, imply, or represent that the same-gender ceremony is an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PC(USA) polity, whether or not the civil jurisdiction allows same-gender civil marriages.”

The commission concluded, however that until the Spahr decision, prior authoritative interpretations lacked mandatory language.

“Southard conducted this ceremony two months prior to Spahr, the PJC stated. “… Spahr cannot be applied retroactively to the facts of this case. Therefore, Southard did not violate the Book of Order or her ordination vows by erring in her constitutional interpretation. She did not commit an offense because the applicable authoritative interpretation (Spahr) had not yet been promulgated.”