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Reaction to church commission's ruling on same-sex marriages

By James Lanar, Bay City News Service

March 4, 2006

SANTA ROSA (BCN) - A church tribunal found today that Presbyterian minister Jane Adams Spahr of San Rafael was acting within the right of her conscience when she performed marriage ceremonies for two lesbian couples in 2004 and 2005.

The Permanent Judicial Commission of the Redwoods Presbytery also decided that Spahr, a lesbian evangelist and gay activist, committed no offense against an interpretation of the church's Book of Order by an Advisory Committee of the Constitution.

The commission said the section of the Book of Order regarding the prohibition of same-sex marriages has been disputed for 15 years and is "a definition, not a directive.''

"The issue remains unsettled because the authors of the Authoritative Interpretation, having available a lexicon in the preface to the Book of Order, chose to say that such marriages 'would not be proper' rather than use mandatory language,'' the commission said.

Stephen Taber, the presbytery's attorney, said he believes the commission misread the section of the Authoritative Interpretation that states same-sex "unions'' are a matter of propriety. He said the commission wrongfully applied that section to same-sex marriages.

"I'm obviously disappointed and believe it was a wrongful decision,'' Taber said. He said the Presbytery of the Redwoods would decide whether there should be an appeal.

Spahr said during her testimony in the two-day trial at the Church of the Roses that her conscience compelled her to perform the marriage ceremonies.

The commission ruled, "Conscience is subordinate to constitutional mandates and to the essentials of the Reformed faith, but conscience takes precedence over propriety.

"We find that Spahr was acting within her right of conscience in performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples,'' six of the seven commission members said.

The seventh member, Janet Moor, an elder at the Heritage Presbyterian Church in Benicia, disagreed in a minority report.

She said the language in the Book of Order states marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman. It follows that a minister, "having pledged in ordination vows to be governed by our church's policy and abide by its discipline,'' is prohibited from performing a marriage between two persons of the same sex, she said.

"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 constitution,'' Moor said.

The commission members gave their decision about five hours after they began their deliberations.

"We feel thankful. We feel grateful,'' Spahr said.

"It was an honoring of who we are. I can't tell you what that means to us,'' she said. "We will continue to do our work with love, integrity and justice.''

Spahr faced a rebuke, censure or dismissal from her ministry if the commission ruled against her.

Spahr's attorney Sara Taylor said the ruling was a "wonderful decision'' that will be instructive to other presbyteries.

Spahr was not the only member of the church to face condemnation for performing same-sex marriages, but she was the first to be tried.

The couples who were married by Spahr, one in Rochester, N.Y. in 2004 and the other on the Sonoma Coast in May, testified at the trial.

"Today I feel accepted like anyone else that got married,'' said Sherrill Figuera of Guerneville.

"I'm very honored and humble to be here and a part of this incredible day,'' she said.

Taber said in his opening and closing statements to the commission that the issue was not whether same-sex marriages should be permitted, but whether Spahr committed acts in violation of the church's Book of Order.

He said there must be a balance between the right to one's
conscience and the church's right to order itself.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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