By Ronnie Cohen
SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - A lesbian minister rebuked by the U.S. Presbyterian Church for blessing the weddings of same-sex couples in California was due to appear on Friday before the denomination's highest court seeking to lift her censure.
The ecclesiastical appeal for the Rev. Jane Spahr, 69, caps the latest of her decades-long series of conflicts with church authorities over greater acceptance of homosexuality in Christianity and in the lives of its followers.
The case highlights deep divisions within the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and its 2 million members, as well as other mainline Protestant denominations over gay and lesbian marriage.
Spahr was the first openly gay Presbyterian pastor asked to preside over a parish church, though she was barred from accepting the post because of her sexual orientation.
Her current appeal also comes as secular support for gay marriage gains favor in federal court and in the legislatures of several states, including Washington, where the governor this week signed into law a measure to recognize same-sex matrimony.
On Friday, Presbyterian ministers and church elders from around the United States will assemble in a San Antonio, Texas, hotel banquet room for a session of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the church's highest judicial authority, to review Spahr's case.
The court must decide whether to uphold Spahr's 2010 censure for defying the church by officiating at the nuptials of 16 same-sex couples in California.
On the eve of the hearing on Thursday, about 100 people sang, prayed for the commission to embrace same-gender marriages, and lit candles of hope, welcoming Spahr with an often emotional service at University Presbyterian Church.
"I've been to seminary. I came out as a lesbian and I've experienced utter hopelessness when I was denied ordination because of who I love," said Selisse Berry, an Oakland woman whose lesbian wedding Spahr blessed in 2008.
"I have hope that the people around the world, even in the land of the Presbyterian Church will someday fully celebrate our love, our lives and the freedom to marry," she added.
One of the women Spahr married in 2008, the Rev. Lisa Bove of Los Angeles, lit a candle for her daughters. "I have a hope that I'll never have to again try to explain to my children what a Permanent Judicial Commission appeal is," Bove told those gathered in the A-frame San Antonio church.
Spahr gave the church a communion cup and plate. "For those of us who have been labeled less than," she said, "God not only accepts us to the table, but invites us and welcomes us."
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)