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Pastor on Trial for Gay Marriages

Covenant Presbyterian Church in Napa, where the trial is taking place
Covenant Presbyterian Church in Napa, where the trial is taking place
Presbyterian Church prosecutes Rev. Jane Adams Spahr

Rev. Jane Adams Spahr took the stand to defend herself Wednesday.

The alleged offense: marrying gay and lesbian couples. The courtroom: a small Presbyterian church in Napa. The jury: church elders who will decide whether to punish Spahr for officiating at the weddings of 16 couples when same-sex marriage was legal in California.

“This church asks me to be in the closet about my sexual orientation and about my faith,” said Spahr, 68, of San Francisco. “I am a Christian lesbian pastor who marries heterosexual couples and lesbian and gay couples; I cannot lie about either part of me nor would I ask any pastor to do this.”

Spahr is charged with going against the Presbyterian Church’s constitution, which the prosecutor — a church elder and former lawyer named JoAn Blackstone — says does not allow for same-sex marriage.

“My feeling is that people should stand up for what they believe in to change things,” said Blackstone. “But I don’t believe ecclesiastical disobedience is the way to go about it.”

Spahr could face anything from censure to suspension to being defrocked. Spahr’s defense team, headed by Scott Clark, argues that the church’s constitution doesn’t prohibit same-sex marriage.

On Wednesday, the church was filled with couples that Spahr has married and supporters who all call her Janie. Spahr and the couples told their stories to the church elders — who sat behind a table underneath the cross at the head of the church — seeking to put a human face on an issue that has divided religious communities in California.

David Hanson and Jeff Owens of Santa Rosa were married twice — the second time in a church by Spahr in 2008.

“Both weddings were very special and very memorable, but the church wedding, it felt more established, it felt more real — we are really a married couple,” said Hanson. “As I became an adult, I stopped going to church at all. Janie has showed me that there is a church out there for all of us.”

Hanson, who has been with Owens for 17 years, testified that he didn’t want to get married until he saw Spahr officiate at a ceremony for their friends. That changed his mind, but it would be another two years before the first wedding. The reason? “We were wedding coordinators — it had to be perfect,” Hanson said. Even the elders on the commission, officially known as the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Redwoods Presbytery, laughed at that remark.

At the end of the couples’ testimony, commissioner Rev. Dan Christian asked the two men if they were members of a church now. The answer was no.

Spahr has long fought for gays and lesbians in the Presbyterian Church, as detailed on the Marin website Pacific Sun. Spahr was brought up on charges before, after marrying couples in 2004. Her last case went all the way up to the supreme court of the church, called the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, where it was thrown out on a technicality.

This latest case is once again testing the church's understanding of marriage, which the Presbyterian Book of Order defines as “a civil contract between a man and a woman.”

With same-sex marriage gaining legal status around the country, pastors are faced with the question of what to do. Deana Reed, the pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church, where the trial is being held, said during a break that “it’s a really important discussion we’re having here.”

The trial comes on the heels of federal Judge Vaughn Walker's decision to overturn California's ban on same-sex marriage. (Complete Prop. 8 coverage here.)

On Tuesday, both sides in the Spahr trial made opening arguments, and theological experts testified. The second day of the trial ended as it had started — with a prayer.

“We thank you for today and for opening our eyes and ears together to all these people that have spoken and shared,” said Rev. Ted Crouch. 

The commission will decide Thursday at around 4 p.m. on Spahr’s fate.

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