A retired Presbyterian minister and active critic of her faith's position on same-sex marriage will be tried by a church court for performing the weddings of gay couples during a brief period when same-sex marriage was legal in California.
The Rev. Jane Spahr, 67, has been charged with "publicly, intentionally and repeatedly" violating Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) doctrine by presiding at the weddings of 16 couples between June 2008 and November 2008, before California voters outlawed same-sex marriages.
"To turn my back on the love and lifelong commitments of these wonderful couples would have gone against my faith, the ministry where I was called, and most of all, against God's amazing hospitality and welcome where love and justice meet together," Spahr said in a written statement.
She has pleaded not guilty, explaining there are other parts of church doctrine that are just as important such as being welcoming and valuing diversity.
The church constitution defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, but its Supreme Judicial Council has ruled that ministers can bless same-sex unions as long as they are not called marriages and the ceremonies don't mimic traditional weddings.
The regional Presbytery of the Redwoods, which oversees 52 churches from an area north of San Francisco to the Oregon border, was required to bring the charges against Spahr earlier this year after a member filed a formal accusation against her.
Eleven of the couples Spahr married are expected to testify as witnesses at the trial scheduled to start Tuesday at a church in Napa.
"The question of this trial is, are state law and church law incompatible," said the Rev. Robert Conover, the prebytery's standing clerk. "Did Rev. Spahr violate the church constitution when she performed same-gender marriages that were legal?"
It's the second time Spahr, a lesbian who founded a ministry for gay Presbyterians, has faced possible sanctions from her church. In 2006, she became the first pastor of her faith to be tried for officiating the weddings of gay couples from states that did not permit same-sex civil marriages.
The regional church tribunal acquitted her, but an intermediate church court rebuked her for misconduct the next year. The church's highest court finally cleared Spahr of any wrongdoing, ruling she did not violate denominational law because the ceremonies she performed were not for government-recognized marriages.
Spahr's lawyers plan to argue this time around that she would have been breaking church law and shirking her pastoral responsibilities if she had refused to marry gay couples who had the legal right to wed and wanted Presbyterian ceremonies.
"The implication of these charges is that Rev. Spahr should have told these couples no -- that she should have advised these couples to go elsewhere," the lawyers wrote in their legal brief. "The testimony in this case will show that Rev. Spahr's was the more faithful response."
If found guilty, Spahr could receive sanctions ranging from a rebuke, the most mild discipline, to a suspension. As with her previous case, the verdict following the upcoming trial would likely be appealed to a higher church court and take a few years to resolve, Conover said.
"Presbyterians, like most mainline Protestants, are accustomed to our church law and state law complementing each other," he said. "We are in a situation now where what's at argument is whether that is still the case."