Presbyterian minister guity of misconduct for lesbian weddings

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A veteran Presbyterian minister was found guilty of violating church law for officiating the weddings of two lesbian couples, the minister's defense team said Friday.

A regional judicial committee of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ruled 6-2 that while the Rev. Jane Spahr of San Rafael "acted with conscience and conviction," her actions were still at odds with the church's constitution, her defense team said in a statement.

The ruling, which was delivered late Thursday by certified mail to lawyers for Spahr and the church, reverses a lower court's decision in March 2006 that she acted within her rights as an ordained minister when she married two lesbian couples in 2004 and 2005.

Spahr, 65, who is retiring at the end of this month, was the first minister of her faith to be tried for officiating the weddings of gay couples. She was among a handful of Presbyterian ministers across the country facing disciplinary action for similar offenses.

Spahr's legal team vowed to appeal.

"My gut reaction was, 'Oh no, no,"' Spahr, who came out as a lesbian in 1978, told The Associated press. "It was sadness first. Sadness because I want so much for the church to be a place of welcome, and to take seriously our relationships ... I want the church to be that place of hospitality and welcome. Not to tolerate us, but to accept us and love us for who we are."

The latest ruling has little practical impact on Spahr, who was rebuked, the mildest form of censure the church could impose. It amounts to an official admonishment by the church and a warning not to engage in the same activities again. The most serious penalty could have been removal from the ministry.

But the legal battle highlights the deep divisions within the Presbyterian church and other Protestant denominations over the role gays should have in their churches.

Spahr, a minister for more than 30 years, has been banned from leading her own church since 1991. The Presbyterian church does not allow actively gay or lesbian members to serve as ministers, but Spahr, who came out prior to the ban, was allowed to keep her position, working for two churches as a "lesbian evangelist" and director of That All May Freely Serve, a group lobbying for ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians.

The Presbyterian church's highest court ruled in 2000 that ministers can bless same-sex unions as long as the ceremonies are not called a marriage and they don't mimic traditional weddings.

Acting on a complaint brought by a minister from Bellevue, Wash., the Presbytery of the Redwoods, which oversees 52 churches along the Pacific coast from Marin County to the Oregon border, brought the charges against Spahr in 2005 for marrying the couples from New York and California.

Last year, a tribunal within that presbytery cleared Spahr of the official misconduct charges, ruling 6-1 that she acted within her rights as an ordained minister and that the section of the faith's constitution specifying that marriage is between a man and a woman "is a definition, not a directive."

The presbytery appealed the ruling. The case was heard last week in Burlingame before a regional judicial commission of the church.

The Rev. Robert Conover, the head of the presbytery, said Friday the ruling underscores the disunity within the church on the issue of same-sex marriage.

"This in no way can be characterized as a victory, but simply as an ongoing display of the deep difference of opinion on matters of faith and practice," he said.

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