|Spahr continues work for marriage equality, but grieves recent PC(USA) ruling|
San Francisco Theological Seminary graduate Janie Spahr continues to stand up for the rights of same-gender couples to marry even though the highest court in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has upheld a ruling that she violated denominational rules.
On February 17, the PC(USA) General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission heard arguments for and against Spahr, who was disciplined for performing same-gender marriages in California in 2008 when marriages of same-gender couples were legal. The court ruled on Feb. 20 that Presbyterian ministers should not perform marriages of same-gender couples even in states where such marriages are legal, because the denomination’s constitution does not recognize such unions as ecclesiastical marriages.
Spahr (BD ’70, D.Min. ’87) officiated at the weddings of 16 same-gender couples from June to November 2008. Same-gender marriages were briefly legal in California until voters passed Proposition 8, an amendment to the California constitution.
In recent weeks the political climate has shifted yet again, as a federal appeals court on Feb. 7 struck down Proposition 8, ruling that the 2008 ballot initiative that limited marriage to being between one man and one woman is unconstitutional. That ruling from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is likely to be appealed.
“I feel sad for the church because I think it’s such a right and loving thing to be with couples on this journey of marriage and deep intimacy with one another,” Spahr told Reuters following the decision in this nationally-monitored case. “When couples come to us our first response should be, 'Yes. How can we be supportive of you and your family?’”
Spahr’s hearing was closely watched by the SFTS community, and SFTS alums were involved in her defense. Rev. Scott Clark, SFTS interim associate dean of student life and chaplain, and Rev. Beverly Brewster, former SFTS enrollment director, have represented Spahr during her hearings over the past three years. Both Clark (M.Div. ’09) and Brewster (M.Div. ’08) are SFTS graduates and practiced law before attending seminary.
The SFTS community has recently been outspoken in its support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion in the PC(USA) and broader church. Seminary students, faculty and staff officially endorsed a statement of LGBT inclusion in May 2010, ensuring a welcoming, safe and open environment at SFTS.
The PC(USA) has made progress toward LGBT inclusion following a 2011 decision to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians. But dissenters to this policy have formed a new denomination in response, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, and some congregations are leaving the PC(USA) to go there and to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
The ruling by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission upheld decisions of lower church courts in the Spahr case. The initial 2008 ruling from the Presbytery of the Redwoods Judicial Commission included a rebuke of Spahr, the imposition of which was stayed while her appeals progressed. That presbytery decision at the same time commended and gave thanks for Spahr’s 35-year ministry, which the Commission found to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In issuing its rebuke, the Presbytery Commission apologized to Spahr and to the couples whom she married, asking “for their forgiveness for the harm that has been, and continues to be, done to them in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission was far from unanimous. Two strongly worded dissenting opinions were issued, with six of the 15 judicial commission members who considered the case signing one or both of them. Two concurring opinions were signed by a total of four commission members – and one of those who wrote a concurrence urged the PC(USA) to allow teaching elders to preside at same-sex marriages in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal.
One of the dissenting opinion states that “we cannot perpetuate the idea that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) couples are children of a lesser God. They are ethically and spiritually the equals of heterosexual couples in the eyes of our Lord. None of us can honestly declare to a committed couple that somehow heterosexuals reflect a more perfect image of the God we worship than they who view their gender differently.”
The Presbyterian News Service and Reuters contributed to this report.