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Presbyterian minister loses appeal over same-sex marriages

February 21, 2012 |  3:27 pm

The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, left, officiates at the wedding of Sherrie Holmes, center, and Sara Taylor in June 2008

A retired Presbyterian pastor who has spent her career ministering to gays and lesbians has been censured by her denomination for marrying same-sex couples during the brief window when such unions were legal in California.

The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr lost her final appeal before the highest court in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which released its opinion Tuesday. The tribunal ruled that the 69-year-old lesbian violated the faith’s constitution and her ordination vows when she officiated at the unions of 16 same-sex couples and called them marriages.

As a result of the ruling, all ministers who officiate at same-gender marriages could face church sanctions, said Beverly Brewster, one of Spahr’s lawyers in the proceedings. A lower court’s rebuke of Spahr was upheld, along with the admonition that pastors should not represent that the marriage of a same-sex couple is a Presbyterian marriage.

“Notwithstanding the fact that the trial court found Rev. Spahr to be a faithful minister and faithful to the gospel, the high court still found her guilty,” said Brewster, who is pastor of Sleepy Hollow Presbyterian Church in San Anselmo in the Bay Area. “It has a major chilling effect.”

Shortly after hearing the verdict of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the Presbyterian Church’s version of the U.S. Supreme Court, Spahr said that she would continue to marry gay and lesbian couples.

Retired ministers retain the right to officiate at wedding ceremonies. 

“I feel sad for the couples who are going to hear another no,” said Spahr, who had not had a chance to read the full decision. “I feel sad for the church. My concern is that it will make ministers fearful to do the most loving and right thing for us to do.”

After a three-day trial in August 2010. Spahr was found guilty of violating the Presbyterian constitution and her ordination vows. But at the same time, the panel of church leaders from the Presbytery of the Redwoods praised the silver-haired grandmother for her "faithful compassion" and her decades-long ministry to gays and lesbians.

"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," the panel said in its ruling at the time. "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."

Spahr appealed the ruling, but in March, a Presbyterian church regional appeals court affirmed her guilt. She then took that decision to the national General Assembly Permanent Judicial Committee, which heard her final appeal Friday in San Antonio and ruled against her this week.

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-- Maria L. La Ganga in San Francisco and Molly Hennessey-Fiske in San Antonio, Texas

Photo: The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, left, officiates at the wedding of Sherrie Holmes, center, and Sara Taylor in June 2008. Credit: Eric Risberg /  Associated Press

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