By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The highest court of the U.S. Presbyterian Church on Tuesday upheld the ecclesiastical rebuke levied against a lesbian minister for blessing same-sex weddings in California.
The decision affirming the censure of the Rev. Jane Spahr means that Presbyterian ministers will continue to face church discipline for treating gay and lesbian couples the same as heterosexual couples when it comes to marriage.
The case surrounding 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 mainstream Protestant denominations over same-sex unions.
Spahr's lawyers estimate that at least 10 percent of the Presbyterian Church's followers identify themselves as gay or lesbian.
The decision also comes as secular support for gay marriage has gained ground in the legislatures of several states.
In Washington state last week, the governor signed into law a measure to recognize same-sex matrimony, and a committee of the Maryland state Senate on Tuesday approved a gay marriage bill.
Convening as the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, 15 church ministers and elders representing regional Presbyterian bodies from throughout the United States heard Spahr's appeal of her rebuke in San Antonio, Texas, on Friday.
In agreeing with the lower-court decision on the censure, the commission's majority wrote that "being faithful to Scripture and the Constitution on other matters does not provide a defense."
"The issue is not simply the same-sex ceremony," they wrote. "It is the misrepresentation that a Presbyterian Church ... recognizes the ceremony and the resulting relationship to be a marriage in the eyes of the church."
In two separate dissenting opinions, six of the commissioners disagreed with the decision to censure Spahr.
In one of those opinions, the dissenters wrote that the majority's decision perpetuates the notion that gay couples "are children of a lesser God."
"As Christians, we claim the high goal of loving and including all, then seek to exclude the (gay) community. This second-class ... treatment proclaims the hypocrisy of our present interpretations."
The 2010 censure of Spahr stemmed from her defiance of church doctrine by officiating the nuptials of 16 same-sex couples in California.
They were among some 18,000 gay weddings performed and legally recognized in that state 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.
Spahr previously made headlines in 1992 when she became 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.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Tim Gaynor)