- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) — A Presbyterian minister accused of “marrying” two lesbian couples in violation of the church’s position on same-sex unions admitted yesterday that she officiated, but said she was following both her conscience and the couples’ wishes.

The Rev. Jane Spahr of San Rafael has been charged with official misconduct over the ceremonies in 2004 and 2005 and with violating the church’s constitution.

As the first witness in her trial before a church judicial commission, Miss Spahr testified that, although she knew the Presbyterian Church (USA) reserves marriage for a man and a woman, she purposely used the language the couples wanted when she presided over the nuptials.

“I don’t care what your sexual orientation is, what’s most important to me is what you call it,” she said. “They said ‘marriage’ and I was honored to do their marriage, so they would not be seen as second class in any way.”

Miss Spahr, 63, is a lesbian and longtime homosexual activist in the Presbyterian Church.

If found guilty by the Presbytery of the Redwoods, the church’s regional governing body, she could face penalties ranging from a rebuke to expulsion from the ministry, said one of her lawyers, Timothy Cahn.

In opening statements, Stephen L. Taber, a San Francisco lawyer representing the church, cautioned the seven-member tribunal not to get caught up in general arguments about homosexual rights.

“The burden on this commission is not to decide whether same-sex marriage is or is not appropriate for the Presbyterian Church USA or whether it should be forbidden,” Mr. Taber said. “The only question here is whether Reverend Spahr committed certain acts, and whether those acts are in violation of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church.”

But defense attorney Sara Taylor countered by saying that ignoring the larger moral issues would be passing up an opportunity to correct a wrong no less grievous than the church’s previous ban on female ministers.

“Whether or not these marriages are good is an issue,” Miss Taylor said. “It is too simplistic to take something this church has wrestled with for 30 years and say it doesn’t matter.”

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is among several Protestant denominations embroiled in a bitter debate between liberals and conservatives over homosexuality. Under a ruling by the national church’s highest court in 2000, Presbyterian churches may bless same-sex unions as long as they do not equate the relationships with marriage.

Miss Spahr is one of a half-dozen Presbyterian ministers across the nation facing disciplinary action for “marrying” same-sex couples, although her case is the first to come to trial, Mr. Cahn said. The others include the Rev. Jim Rigby in Austin, Texas; the Rev. Janet Edwards in Pittsburgh; and the Rev. Ilene Dunn in San Antonio.

As the regional arm of the church, the presbytery is responsible for investigating misconduct charges leveled against its member clergy.

At issue is whether Miss Spahr violated the part of the church constitution defining marriage as “a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives in discipleship.”

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