Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Spahr faces another church trial over marriages


The Reverend Jane Spahr is on trial again for marrying same-sex couples. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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The Presbyterian Church just won't stop putting minister Jane Spahr on trial.

Spahr, an out lesbian Presbyterian minister, is being tried in Napa this week for marrying same-sex couples in California in 2008 when such marriages were legal under state law.

She faced a similar trial two years ago. Spahr has been charged with violating church law.

Spahr, 67, said in a phone interview Tuesday morning, August 24, that over the next few days, 11 couples that she married would be testifying. The trial, held by the Presbytery of the Redwoods, started Tuesday.

"My hope is we'll hear their story and hear their love, and it will be an amazing time for the church to witness this kind of love and the great hospitality of God," said Spahr.

Apparently referring to the people on the court, she added, "Whether they agree with me or not, we're friends. ... I'm hoping the verdict will be a good one, since they know me and since they will hear these amazing couples."

Spahr, who served more than 30 years as a Presbyterian minister in Marin County, is retired and lives in San Francisco.

The marriages in question were performed during the brief period in 2008 when same-sex couples could legally marry in California, June 16 through November 3. That was before the state's voters passed Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban.

The California Supreme Court upheld the ballot measure, but allowed the estimated 18,000 marriages that had occurred during that brief period to stand.

Spahr has a long history of supporting marriage equality.

In April 2008, the Presbyterian Church USA overturned a censure of Spahr for performing same-sex marriages, but said, "A same-sex ceremony is not and cannot be a marriage."

By this, the church's General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission was saying Spahr had not violated church regulations against performing same-sex marriages, because these unions are not really marriages. During her time as a minister Spahr had performed hundreds of marriages, both same-sex and heterosexual.

This decision by the General Assembly commission of the national Presbyterian Church, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, reversed an appellate decision by the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of the Pacific that censured Spahr for performing same-sex marriages. And it upheld, to some degree, the original decision of the Presbytery of the Redwoods in March 2006 that found Spahr had the right to perform same-sex marriages within the church.

In the 2006 trial, which lasted for two days in Santa Rosa's Church of the Roses, the local Presbytery cleared Spahr of charges that she had violated church rules by marrying two lesbian couples.

Following the Santa Rosa decision, the Presbytery appealed to the regional body, which censured Spahr. Then Spahr and her attorneys appealed to the national body, which meets once a year in Louisville, resulting in the mixed decision in favor of Spahr but against same-sex marriage.

Spahr said she's "continuing to preach and teach" and is still willing to perform marriages for anyone.

"A retired pastor is never retired," she said.

A press release from Spahr's supporters this week said the constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA "has no express prohibition against same-gender marriage." However, the Reverend Jerry Van Marter, director of the Presbyterian News Service, said that was inaccurate.

"The constitution of the Presbyterian church defines marriage as between a man and a woman, so a same-gender marriage is, by definition, unconstitutional," said Van Marter. He also said that he's heard the trial could take three days.

The press release from Spahr's supporters said she could face suspension from ministerial duties.

Van Marter said if Spahr is found guilty, "There are varying levels of discipline" possible, "but it's up to the court to determine the level of censure."

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