In an unprecedented defiance of a church judicial commission, representatives of Northern California Presbyterian churches Tuesday refused to rebuke a retired pastor for marrying 16 same-sex couples when gay marriage was legal in California in 2008.
The 74-18 vote on a motion opposing the censure of the Rev. Jane Spahr came at a meeting of the Presbytery of the Redwoods at the First Presbyterian Church in San Anselmo.
"Love and justice have come together here," Spahr, 69, said after the vote. "I think this is going to help and stop the violence. This is a place that said, yes, yes to our love."
Spahr, a former San Rafael pastor who now lives in San Francisco, has been struggling with the church for years over rules governing same-sex marriages.
In opposing the rebuke, the presbytery defied an Aug. 27, 2010, decision of its own Permanent Judicial Commission, which concluded that Spahr violated the church's constitution. Spahr's legal team appealed that decision all the way to the church's highest court.
In February of this year, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission upheld the lower court's decision to rebuke Spahr in a 9-6 vote.
"The issue is not simply the same-sex ceremony," the high court wrote in its decision. "It is the misrepresentation that the Presbyterian Church (USA) recognizes the ceremony and the resulting relationship to be a marriage in the eyes of the church."
The Rev. Jerry Van Marter, director of the Presbyterian News Service in Louisville, called Tuesday's Redwoods Presbytery decision to oppose the court-ordered rebuke unprecedented.
"I'm not aware of any other case in which a court has instructed a presbytery to issue a rebuke and the presbytery has refused," Van Marter said. "I can tell you, symbolically, it's an important statement by that presbytery."
The approved motion -- submitted by the Rev. Scott Clark, one of Spahr's attorneys in the case and chaplain at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo -- emphasized that the presbytery recognizes the Gospel of Jesus Christ above man-made rules.
"Whereas, the love of God in Jesus Christ is for all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people," the presbytery opposes the rebuke "as inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the faithful life of ministry lived out in this Presbytery," the motion stated.
Clark called the rebuke "contrary to the inclusive Gospel of Jesus Christ" and urged the presbytery to acknowledge that "it harms people in the name of Jesus Christ."
More than 20 people addressed the roughly 100 church leaders and members assembled for the meeting, with about 17 speaking in support of Spahr and three opposing Clark's motion. Some of the speakers came from as far as Texas and New York.
"There's a time when words are not enough ... when Gandhi said we have to make the changes that we want to see in the world," said Jim Rigby, a minister from Austin, Texas. "No one has a right to be a cog in a machine of someone else's oppression. We're responsible before Jesus Christ in how we treat our sisters and brothers."
But Kelsey Ingalls, of First Presbyterian Church of Ukiah, said she opposed defying the court's decision.
"There are many, many people in our churches who feel very strongly that our (church) constitution follows Scripture," Ingalls said.
Members of the presbytery cast their votes by standing either in favor or against the motion.
Spahr's roots in Marin run deep. She earned two degrees from the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, and served as an assistant pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael in the 1970s. Spahr is also a co-founder and former executive director of the Spectrum LGBT Center in San Rafael.
Novato resident Sara Taylor, who has worked on Spahr's legal team, said Spahr married her and her wife, Sherrie Holmes, at the Marin Civic Center in June 2008.
Taylor called the presbytery's decision "the right thing to do."
"I know that sounds so simple," she said, noting that before Tuesday's vote she questioned whether to continue her involvement with the church.
"Today this presbytery said we're equal," Spahr told reporters and supporters Tuesday afternoon. "That's what we want. We don't want special rights. We want baptismal rights and we want our civil rights."
Supporters celebrated with Spahr at the seminary Tuesday afternoon.
Contact Jessica Bernstein-Wax via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.