Church charges California minister over gay weddings
SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) – A retired Presbyterian minister in Northern California is again facing charges she violated church law when she officiated at the weddings of gay couples.
The Rev. Jane Spahr, 67, was acquitted two years ago of similar charges when the church’s top court found that she did not violate denominational law because the ceremonies she performed were not real marriages.
But this time, the same-sex marriages at issue were legal in California. The 16 weddings were performed in 2008 before voters banned the unions with the passage of Proposition 8.
Spahr’s lawyer, Scott Clark, said it’s unprecedented that the church is trying to sanction a minister for performing legal marriages.
The prosecution counters, however, that while the marriages may have been legal under state law, they were “expressly prohibited” by the church.
The case hinges on “a narrow issue of church law,” said prosecutor JoAn Blackstone, who added that the local presbytery committee that investigated the Spahr case found it didn’t have “any wiggle room” in deciding to press charges.
“This isn’t about her character,” she said. “It’s only about church law.”
The constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman. The church’s Supreme Judicial Council has ruled that ministers can bless same-sex unions as long as the ceremonies are not called a marriage and don’t mimic traditional weddings.
The charges, formalized earlier this month, say Spahr “publicly, intentionally and repeatedly” violated church laws and “failed to further the peace, unity and purity of the church.”
Spahr acknowledges the allegations and said she performed the weddings as a “matter of conscience.”
“It’s a real faith issue for me,” she said. “I think I would be in jeopardy if I didn’t do it.”
Spahr, a lesbian who lives in San Francisco, used to lead a ministry for gay Presbyterians until she retired in 2007.
She faces sanctions ranging from public censure to a prohibition against performing ministerial duties, including marriages, Clark said. A trial on the new charges will likely take place in August or September.
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