Even as a federal appeals court prepares to weigh same-sex marriage as an issue of man's law, a Bay Area minister is about to face trial for performing such weddings in violation of what her church says is God's law.
After 36 years as a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, 68, of San Francisco, could face censure, a suspension from pastoral duties, or -- unlikely, but possible -- even revocation of her ordination after proceedings starting Tuesday at the Presbytery of the Redwoods in Napa.
"I think what's at stake here is whether the church be the welcoming, hospitable, loving place that its founder founded," Spahr said last week. "Jesus was one who challenged all the oppressive systems during his time, and I think the church should be the place that is the welcoming place and is not a place of oppression. It's time for the church to see us for who we are"
Most religious denominations have struggled with whether and how to recognize matrimonial bonds for same-sex couples.
With more than 2 million adherents, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has allowed the blessing of same-sex couples since 2000 and has endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples since 2004, but its constitution defines marriage as between "a man and a woman." A church legislative committee voted 34-18 last month to change that definition to between "two people," but the church's General Assembly days later voted 439-208 to table the matter for two years of further study. Passage by the General Assembly would have to be ratified by a majority of the nation's 173 local presbyteries.
Those arguing for the change say same-sex couples can show the same kind of love and commitment as opposite-sex couples and so deserve the same recognition from the church; those arguing against it say it's at odds with Scripture.
So Spahr now faces trial on whether she violated the church's beliefs by performing 16 same-sex weddings in 2008, during the five-month period in which it was legal in California to do so. Eleven Bay Area couples whose weddings Spahr officiated, including five from the East Bay, will go to Napa to testify on her behalf.
"She's a passionate, inclusive, genuinely nice person who I believe walks through the world with only good intentions in mind," said Vicki Zalewski of El Cerrito, who will testify for Spahr along with her wife, Kathy. Spahr officiated their wedding in August 2008.
"She follows how she's being led (by God), not by what she's being told to do," Vicki Zalewski said. "She's a powerful individual that way."
"I want people to see that we are a loving and committed relationship who knows that in the eyes of God, our relationship is just fine, and in the eyes of people, we're still trying to change their minds by conveying who we are and how we walk in the world," she added. "She (Spahr) models what we are, she walks the walk. She goes where her heart takes her, where God takes her."
Spahr began her ministerial career in inner-city Pittsburgh, Pa., before serving at churches in San Rafael and San Francisco; in 1982 she helped found the Spectrum LGBT Center in San Rafael. She was called to be co-pastor of a Rochester, N.Y., church in 1991, but was challenged because she's a lesbian, and the denomination's highest court eventually ruled she couldn't serve there. Instead she went to work for a new national Presbyterian ministry called "That All May Freely Serve," and directed it until retiring from full-time work in 2007.
She retired amid an earlier set of charges, accusing her of officiating same-sex ceremonies and calling them "weddings" while both church policy and state law forbade doing so. She was vindicated in a local trial within the Presbytery of the Redwoods -- the North Bay's and North Coast's local organ of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) -- in 2006. That ruling was overturned on appeal to the Petaluma-based, multistate Synod of the Pacific, and Spahr was cleared by the national court in 2008.
The new charges against Spahr were brought by a layperson who has chosen to remain anonymous.
The Rev. Robert Conover, the Redwood Presbytery's stated clerk, said the investigating committee pursued the case -- rather than declining to do so and letting the complainant appeal that decision -- because it differs from the prior one against Spahr; this time, she acted within state law's bounds to perform marriages at odds with the denominational constitution.
His was among presbyteries that had pressed the General Assembly to amend the constitution in favor of same-sex marriages, he noted. "But whenever someone makes a legitimate complaint and follows the process, that complaint is investigated regardless of whether or not it would be supported by a majority of the presbytery," he said.
"From a mainline Protestant perspective, it's complicated and ambiguous. I could not say to you what the 'Presbyterian perspective' is, we're just working through it," Conover added, noting the denominational constitution's current stance doesn't reflect all Presbyterians' beliefs about Scriptural requirements. "We don't debate over the authority of Scripture, we debate over the interpretation of that authority."
What's being played out in his church, writ small, is exactly what's being played out in California and across the nation, he said.
"We're in the midst of a huge sweeping transition of who we are culturally, and so whatever we see being at issue, being of concern and importance in the church, is mirrored in society and vice versa.
"We'll see who budges first -- church or society."
The Rev. Beverly Brewster, who was a trial lawyer before her ordination, is defending Spahr this week, along with Scott Clark, a ministry candidate who recently graduated from the San Francisco Theological Seminary.
"We're very optimistic that the panel will find in her favor and find no merit to the charges, and so there will be no penalty phase," Brewster said. If Spahr is to be punished, Brewster thinks it'll be censure -- an official rebuke -- rather than the more severe possibilities.
The Redwood Presbytery's Permanent Judicial Commission that will hear Spahr's case consists of seven ministers and lay leaders elected to six-year terms. Brewer said whether a jurist is ordained or a layperson is less important to this case's outcome than "where people are in terms of the theological spectrum, and how important they feel nondiscrimination is in the life of the church."
The trial is expected to take several days and it is unclear when the panel may rule.
Spahr officiated the wedding of the Revs. Curran Reichert and Katie Morrison of Oakland -- now pastors of United Church of Christ congregations in Tiburon and San Lorenzo, respectively -- on the night before Election Day 2008, when voters passed Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage. They named their daughter, Ellis Jane, now 1, after Spahr.
"Janie is faithful to what she was taught as a child in Sunday School, which is that love triumphs over fear," said Reichert, 42, yet Spahr is being told that she loves too much, or loves the wrong people, or is too compassionate. "I think she's one of the greatest examples we have of a positive face for religion in our time."
Churches of all denominations must acknowledge that attendance is in decline, with more and more people seeing religion at best as benign and at worst, destructive, she said. "There's no time to waste: This is a moment when the church can become relevant again if it stands for justice and inclusion. We don't matter, the message of love and inclusion matters. Janie lives that gospel; her life is a love song to God."
For Spahr, said Morrison, 38, "it's not the flowers, it's not the wedding band -- it's how you love each other."
Oakland architect Tom Brutting, 56, and his husband, accountant Ed York, 51, met in 1997, bought a home together in 2005 and were married by Spahr -- whom Brutting said he has known for nearly 20 years -- in October 2008.
"Jane seemed to be the one who we thought would be most suitable for our marriage," Brutting said, though neither he nor York are Presbyterians. "I find that Jane is extremely spiritual, very connected to her beliefs and most certainly understands the depth of our relationship."
Spahr said marriage requires a healthy, loving relationship, not a particular sexual orientation. "I've seen families transformed in coming to these marriages, it's been an incredible experience for me, and as a pastor it's a sacred trust when people come to us."
She says she wishes her church could "be contagious to the joy" of these weddings.
Although the General Assembly postponed the same-sex marriage proposal, it did vote 373-323 in favor of a proposal to let noncelibate gays and lesbians be ordained and serve as ministers -- for the fourth time in recent decades. Previous attempts to enact this have been rejected by the local presbyteries.
"Even when people disagree with me -- they have every right to -- if you want a dialogue, dialogues are supposed to be between equals," Spahr said. "Right now, until our folks can be in leadership, until our relationships are seen as equal, there's not a dialogue going on, there's a power game going on. I want to invite us all to be at the table equally."
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