Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

North Bay Presbytery accepts gay weddings


Reverend Jane Spahr. Photo: Lois Pearlman
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A Presbyterian court in Santa Rosa last week ruled that a Marin County minister was not in violation of church regulations when she performed hundreds of weddings for gays and lesbians over the past 30 years.

The chair of the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Redwoods Presbytery, Raymond Alden, read the verdict in the social hall of the Church of the Roses, while the openly lesbian minister, Jane Spahr, waited anxiously with her attorneys and supporters. The trial, which started Thursday, March 2, lasted a day and a half. The commission rendered a decision Friday, March 3.

"We find that Spahr was acting within her right of conscience in performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples," the decision said. "We also find that the accused acted within the normative standards of Redwoods Presbytery, faithfully reporting to it her activities at reasonable intervals."

Spahr, a 63-year-old mother and grandmother, cried softly as she replied, "We've lost many, but today is just a beautiful day for us."

Only one of the seven commission members dissented, arguing, "I agree with the prosecution that the beliefs of the accused are to be respected, but that the actions of the accused must still be constrained by what is prohibited by the [Presbyterian] constitution."

At issue in the disciplinary case against Spahr was her right to call the ceremonies she performs for gays and lesbians "marriages" rather than "holy unions." In particular, the commission was considering two weddings Spahr performed for lesbian couples in Rochester, New York, and in Guerneville.

Although the leaders of the Redwoods Presbytery have known for many years that Spahr was performing the same type of wedding ceremonies for both gay and straight couples – and have accepted it – they were forced to bring a case against her when a Presbyterian minister from Bellevue, Washington made a complaint in 2004.

That minister, James Berkley, is the interim director of Presbyterians Action for Faith and Freedom, a church group that believes in strict interpretation of the Bible. It is affiliated with Institute on Religion and Democracy, an umbrella organization that includes other mainstream Protestant denominations.

Berkley had apparently read about one of Spahr's same-sex wedding ceremonies in a newspaper.

The Redwoods Presbytery is a regional body of the 2.4 million-member Presbyterian Church U.S.A. It covers northwestern California from Marin County to the Oregon border.

When questioned by Spahr's defense attorney, Timothy Cahn, about why the Presbytery agreed to bring the charges, Joan Runyeon, who was the interim stated clerk when Berkley called, said, "He [Berkley] sent an e-mail. He advised [us that] those were allegations. What are you going to do about it? It just kicks in a complaint. In a complaint we have no choice about it. The clerk makes no decision. Once the allegation comes, the process starts."

Prosecuting attorney Stephen Taber, representing the Presbytery in the case against Spahr, argued that an authoritative interpretation in a case brought before the Presbyterian Church USA's General Assembly in 1991 said ministers are allowed to perform holy unions but not same-sex marriages.

Cahn and co-defense attorney Sara Taylor countered that the interpretation declared same-sex marriages to be "improper," not prohibited, so Spahr did not commit an "offense."

Under Presbyterian Church law, ordained ministers are required to follow the Presbyterian Constitution, which also includes authoritative interpretations and precedents established by the nationwide General Assembly.

Taber said Presbyterian ministers have the right to hold their individual beliefs, but not to act on them if they are contrary to church regulations.

"The individual may hold beliefs, and they are protected, but they should not carry out [certain] actions. There is a distinction between belief and action," he said.

"We cannot separate our actions from our faith," countered Taylor in her opening statements.

The bulk of the first day of the trial was given over to testimony by Spahr and the two couples whose weddings were cited in the charges.

Dressed in a flowing jacket and skirt, Spahr took the stand on the first morning and admitted to performing the weddings, but pleaded not guilty to disobeying church rules.

"My role was to officiate at that service, yes. I performed as a Presbyterian. And then I pronounce that they are married, yes. They chose those words. I pronounced them as brides," she said.

A lifelong Presbyterian, Spahr was ordained in 1974. When she came out as a lesbian she started the Ministry of Light in Marin County, now the Spectrum Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns.

In 1991, she was invited to be co-pastor of the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, but a group of pastors objected and the Genesee Valley Presbytery refused to let her serve because she is a lesbian.

Soon afterward, the Rochester church, along with the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon, appointed her an evangelist and sponsored her founding of the national organization, That All May Freely Serve, which is dedicated to full inclusion of LGBT people in the Presbyterian Church.

As many in the audience wept, the testimony continued with comments from the four women whose weddings constituted the charges against Spahr.

Barbara Jean Douglass, one of the Rochester brides, said she has eight sisters and brothers who are all married, and she wanted her relationship to her partner, Connie Valois, to be equal to theirs.

Valois, who was raised in a Catholic family, said one of her sisters had to get her priest's permission to attend the August 21, 2004 wedding. And one of her brothers wrote her an 18-page letter explaining that he loved her but couldn't come for religious reasons.

"I couldn't finish it. I just kept on crying, 'Tom, it's me, it's me,'" she testified through her tears.

Annie Senechal, at whose Guerneville-area wedding Spahr officiated in May 2005, explained why it was important for her and her partner, Sherrill Figuera, to be married within the Christian tradition.

"We have had quite a journey together," she said of their 12-year relationship. "Our relationship moved to another level. We are very close, at this point, to take the next step, which is to start a family."

During her testimony Figuera turned to the commission and said, "If you've never been in a place where you're not accepted, you won't understand." [When Spahr pronounced them married] "I felt for once like I was good enough."

While the decision of the Presbytery does not create a church-wide precedent – because it comes from the lowest level of the Presbyterian hierarchy – it does hold sway within the Redwoods Presbytery. According to the Presbytery's office in Napa, this body has not yet decided if it will appeal the decision made by its Judicial Commission.

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