By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The highest court of the U.S. Presbyterian Church will convene in Texas on Friday to consider whether a lesbian minister violated ecclesiastical law when she blessed the weddings of same-sex couples in California.
The case surrounding the Rev. Jane Spahr, a 69-year-old grandmother, 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, who has battled for greater acceptance of homosexuality in the life of the Kentucky-based church for decades, was the first openly gay Presbyterian pastor asked to preside over a local ministry, 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 steam in federal court and in the legislatures of several states, including Washington, where the Democratic governor, a Catholic, 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.
They were among some 18,000 gay weddings performed and legally recognized in California during a six-month window between May 2008, when the California Supreme Court struck down a ban on same-sex matrimony, and November of that year, when voters approved a state constitutional amendment reinstating it.
That gay marriage ban, known as Proposition 8, was declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court last week but remains in effect while judicial review of the case continues.
MATTER OF FAITH
"When the state of California said 'yes,' and then I pronounced them married in the name of the church and the state, there was exuberance beyond compare," Spahr told Reuters earlier this week as she and her 7-year-old granddaughter taped candy hearts to valentines at her San Francisco home.
"To send these couples away from the church would be going against what I believe about God and God's welcome. It would go against my faith and my call."
Ordained in 1974, two years before coming to the self-realization that she was a lesbian, Spahr made headlines in 1992 when she became the first openly gay minister called to a Presbyterian congregation.
While church courts denied her the Rochester, New York, parish because of her sexual orientation, they have never moved to strip Spahr of her ordination, and she went on to minister to gays and lesbians throughout the country as a traveling evangelist. The church last spring formally opened the ranks of its clergy to homosexuals.
Spahr will attend the San Antonio hearing with nine of the same-gender couples she married in 2008.
During her 2010 church trial in Napa, California, those couples testified about a lifetime of discrimination, their joy at being able to legally marry and how hurt they felt when the church rebuked their pastor for solemnizing their weddings.
After the trial, a tribunal of mostly gray-haired clergy and elders apologized to the couples on behalf of the denomination. However, the court found Spahr guilty of breaking church law and censured her, pending appeal, for performing the weddings.
At the same time, the tribunal called on higher authorities in the church to examine its own prejudices and to reconcile conflicting messages sent to homosexuals and their ministers.
Few ministers are willing to perform gay marriages, even in states where they are legally recognized, for fear of facing church sanctions, said Spahr's attorney, Sara Taylor.
"The church is now playing out its dysfunction on the backs of faithful pastors," the Rev. Scott Clark, another of Spahr's attorneys, said at a recent San Antonio workshop on same-sex marriage and the church. "And that's what has to stop."
Clark and Taylor contend nothing in church law forbids a Presbyterian minister from blessing a same-sex wedding.
But church prosecutor JoAn Blackstone, a retired attorney and church elder who calls Spahr a "dear friend," argues that a separate decision from an earlier case against Spahr expressly prohibits gay marriage in the Presbyterian Church.
In April 2008, the denomination's highest court issued a ruling pertaining to lesbian ceremonies Spahr performed in California and New York in 2004 and 2005, before gay marriage was legal in either state. The commission found Spahr did not violate Presbyterian law prohibiting homosexual marriage then because church doctrine recognized no such thing.
Ministers may bless unions between two men or between two women, but pastors "shall not state, imply, or represent that a same-sex ceremony is a marriage," the decision held.
"But the church can still welcome the family, can still baptize the children, can have a celebration at coffee hour or a party inviting the whole church after their civil marriage," Blackstone said.
Spahr's lawyers maintain the ecclesiastical court cannot create prohibitions, only the church's legislative body can. Although the church need not recognize same-sex marriages, it cannot punish ministers for performing them, Taylor said.
Last month, Presbyterians opposed to gay clergy announced they were leaving the denomination to form a new church, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.
"Well, you see the Presbyterian Church is dividing because of those queer people," Spahr said facetiously at the recent workshop. "No. The Presbyterian Church is dividing because it moved in on its own prejudice.
"I did not disobey. I'm doing what I was taught to do. It's ecclesiastical obedience."
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Tim Gaynor)