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The Presbyterian Church (USA) and homosexuality.
Trials in Church courts involving gays and lesbians:

Part 1:
Trials of Elder Doug & Rev. Jane Spahr.

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Elder "Doug's" Trial:

  • 1989-1996: "Doug" has remained anonymous out of fear for his physical safety. He became a Presbyterian while a student at Ohio State University. He found the church there "a community that welcomed openness. You were free to think. You could ask questions, have doubts.'' He joined the Knox Presbyterian Church in Hyde Park, OH in 1989. There, he served as an usher, deacon, and committee chairperson. In 1995, he was elected by the congregation and ordained as an elder. 1,2 His reason for accepting the elder position was simple. He believes that "...when the church asks you to serve, you should try to say yes.''

    A fellow church member allegedly found proof that Doug was gay, and filed a complaint. Testimony before the Judicial Commission of the Cincinnati Presbytery concentrated on whether the church had been sufficiently vigorous in searching out gays and lesbians who had been elected to the post of elder. There were allegations that he had admitted being gay, when in small groups and in private conversations. In addition, his name appeared in the church's pictorial directory with another man at the same street address.

  • 1996-JUN: By a vote of 4 to 3 Doug was stripped of his ordination. For the first time in US history, a Presbyterian judicial body overruled a local church on the sexual orientation issue. In taking this action, they apparently violated the denomination's "Book of Order" which required that a disciplinary decision is necessary before an ordination can be canceled.

  • 1997: The Synod of the Covenant Permanent Judicial Commission held hearings on 1997-OCT-22 in Findlay, OH. The Synod overruled the local Commission on 1997-OCT-24 and reinstated the Elder's ordination. 3 An important factor is that the session had not asked the elder candidate directly about his sexual orientation. As a result, he did not formally tell his session that he was gay. The Synod upheld 8 of the 10 points made by Knox Church in its submission in favor of "Doug."

    Commenting on the two fellow church members who had outed him, he said:

    ''I don't know that Knox has been changed by this, 'but what it has always been, has been made visible to us. I'm not sure that the people at Knox ever really had to be brave before. I'm not sure they knew how brave they were...The people of Knox may not be of one mind on whether homosexuality is a sin, but they are of one mind that it is God's job to make judgments, not ours.''

  • 1998: This decision was appealed to the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of the Synod of the Covenant. This is the church's highest church.
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Rev. Jane Spahr's trial:

A minister from Belleville, WA lodged a complain after Rev. Jane Spahr, 63, had married two same-sex couples in 2004 and 2005. One couple was from Rochester NY; the other was from Guerneville, CA. The denomination's highest court had ruled in 2000 that its ministers may bless same-sex unions as long as they are not considered marriages and as long as the ceremonies are not too similar to marriage ceremonies. But Rev. Spahr had been calling these unions marriages when that is the preference of the couples involved.

Spahr has been a minister for over three decades. She came out as a lesbian in 1978. Although the denomination does not allow gays or lesbians to serve as ministers, she was allowed to keep her position. However, has been prohibited from leading a church since 1991. Since then, she has worked for two churches as a "lesbian evangelist" and as a director of a gay-positive advocacy group of Presbyterians called That All May Freely Serve.

She had been charged with violating the church's policy on same-sex marriage. On 2006-MAR-03, she was found not guilty with a vote of 6 to 1 by the tribunal of the Presbytery of the Redwoods. The presbytery extends from a point north of San Francisco to the Oregon border.

The church's constitution does restrict marriage to one man and one woman. However, the tribunal said that this is:

"a definition, not a directive. ... [Thus she was] acting within her right of conscience in performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples."

After the ruling was announced, Spahr said:

"The church said God loved everyone, and for years I believed it. Today, for just one moment, to hear this is remarkable."

The sole dissenter issued a minority opinion saying that it was logical that ministers should be disciplined for going against the denomination's position on marriage even if the constitution does not spell that out explicitly.

Many members of the Presbytery -- both conservative and liberal -- complained about the cost of the trial.

The verdict was appealed. The Permanent Judicial Commission, Synod of the Pacific reversed the Redwoods Presbytery's decision, and ordered Redwoods to "rebuke" Spahr. She appealed that decision to the highest court in the denomination.

On 2008-APR-29, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly confirmed Spahr's original non-guilty verdict. Their rationale was that she could not be

"... found guilty of doing that which, by definition, cannot be done."

Under the denomination's definition of marriage, only opposite-sex couples can be married. Thus, the ceremony that Spahr conducted could not have been a marriage ceremony. Part of the ruling stated:

"The ceremonies that are the subject of this case were not marriages as the term is defined by W-4.9001 [of the church’s constitution] One cannot characterize same sex ceremonies as marriages for the purpose of disciplining a minister, and at the same time declare that such ceremonies are not marriages for legal or ecclesiastical purposes.”

The ruling noted that the PC(USA)'s General Assembly has affirmed several times and in various ways its commitment to promote the "just and equal treatment of all persons regardless of sexual orientation." 5,6

An article in OneNewsNow dated 2008-MAY-02 states:

"... Jim Berkley, director of Presbyterian Action with the Institute on Religion & Democracy, says the ruling by the high court was confusing. 'They basically said that ... according to our definition of marriage, marriage is only between a man and a woman,' explains Berkley."
 
"Berkley says the Commission then reasoned that according to their definition of marriage, the ceremony that the minister performed 'could not be a marriage service, therefore she could not have been violating the rule'."
 
"But Berkley argues that the Presbyterian Church USA needs to take a firm stand on the issue of homosexuality. He believes the church should look on homosexual practice as a sin, and instead of skirting the issue it should be condemned. 'This is too wishy-washy, too nuanced,' he states. 'What we need is a very clear statement that says we believe that homosexual practice is [sinful] ... that any practice of homosexuality is not something that the church can countenance, and that we won't be playing around with it ...."
 
"In recent developments, Spahr says she is currently counseling three homosexual couples in preparation for marriage." 7
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Readers' Comments on the One News Now article about Rev. Jane Spahr:

The article cited above was published in OneNewsNow.com during 2008-MAY. This is a news service of the American Family News Service -- an evangelical Christian group that gives "... the latest news without the liberal bias that characterizes so much of the 'mainstream' media."

The article generated 39 readers' comments. 7 Since the readers were commenting on an article in a conservative news source, they are probably not representative of Christians generally. Some comments, with grammar and spelling corrected, are:

  • "This issue explains clearly why so many churches are running--screaming--from the PC(USA) to independent or EPC affiliation. We just can't take it anymore! Excellent article which paints this nonsense exactly as it should be."

  • "Where do these uppity women get off?!! Women are to submit to MEN, NOT be their preachers!!!"

  • "I am a member of a Presbyterian church and am appalled that the Church would skirt this issue. I will write a letter to my church this day resigning my membership from this church of Satan. God's word is very VERY clear about homosexuality...."

  • "Talk about "no backbone." It's time the church either condones or condemns homosexuality. If they condone it, they lose. If they condemn it, they lose, but at least, they've taken a stand. Why not just stand with the Scriptures which condemn homosexuality. Anyone who reads can see that." 7
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This topic continues in the next essay

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Internet and media references used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Krista Ramsey, "Doug is calm at center of church storm", Cincinnati Enquirer, 1997-NOV-1
  2. Julie Irwin, "Church watches trial on gay elder; Local case may be watershed," Cincinnati Enquirer, 1997-OCT-21
  3. J. L. Van Marter & John Sniffen, "Complainant Appeals Synod Commission's Decision", PC(USA) News mailing list, Item #97479, 1997-DEC-17
  4. Lisa Leff, "Minister found not guilty of misconduct," ReligionNewsBlog, 2006-MAR-04, at: http://www.religionnewsblog.com/
  5. Evan Silverstein and Jerry Van Marter, "Spahr found innocent in same-sex marriage case GAPJC: by definition, same-sex 'marriage' cannot be performed,"  Presbyterian News Service, 2008-APR-29, at: http://www.pcusa.org/
  6. The text of the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly's ruling is at: http://www.pcusa.org/ This is a PDF file.
  7. Allie Martin, "PC(USA) sends confusing message on marriage," OneNewsNow, 2008-MAY-02, at:  http://www.onenewsnow.com/
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Copyright © 1996 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Latest update 2014-JUN-25
Author: B.A. Robinson
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