By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - As the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.'s legislative body considers this week whether to allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages, Reverend Jane Spahr will not be present. But in some ways she will be at the center of the proceedings.
Spahr, a 69-year-old lesbian evangelist who has defied the church and been rebuked by a church court for performing same-sex weddings in California, has been an outspoken advocate for liberalizing church policy on weddings.
The Presbyterian Church allows ministers to bless same-sex unions but prohibits them from solemnizing such civil nuptials. But at its biennial convention, which is being held in Spahr's native Pittsburgh, church leaders are debating whether to change that and may reach a decision this week.
One proposal is to change how church doctrine defines marriage. Another would interpret the constitution's language on marriage as descriptive, rather than prohibitive, and allow pastors in states where gay marriage is legal to immediately begin performing same-sex weddings.
Both measures would allow ministers to officiate at gay weddings but would not compel pastors to perform the ceremonies.
"I'm hoping that the General Assembly will be touched by the spirit, and they will see our marriages not as second class but as equal with our brothers and sisters," Spahr said from San Francisco, where she lives.
The gay-marriage question highlights deep divisions within the Presbyterian Church and its 1.9 million members, as congregants increasingly ask ministers to bless same-sex marriages. Civil gay marriage is now legal in six U.S. states.
Reform Jews, Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ allow clergy to perform same-sex weddings. The United Methodist Church, the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination, forbids it.
The Episcopal Church, which will hold its own convention this month, is divided over the question.
Spahr has twice stood trial in Presbyterian Church courts for performing same-sex weddings. In a 9-6 ruling in February, the denomination's highest court upheld the ecclesiastical rebuke of her for officiating at 16 gay and lesbian weddings in California and ordered her censured.
The dissenters called on those assembled in Pittsburgh this week to reconcile what they described as a conflict between same-sex matrimony and the Bible's directive for the church to welcome everyone.
The dissenters wrote that Spahr's censure perpetuates the notion that gay couples "are children of a lesser God."
The effort has angered some in the church.
"Any departure from that standard by the church is evidence that the church is not living subject to the authority of the Bible," Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee.
(Writing by Edith Honan; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)