Presbyterians Again “Spahr” over Gay Marriage

“Here we are again.”

That was Rev. Janie Spahr’s reaction as the Presbyterian Church (USA) lodged new charges against her for performing same-sex marriages. Spahr has been in this hot seat before. She’s been in and out of trouble for presiding over ceremonies for same-sex couples since 2006. The worst punishment she has received was a rebuke in 2008… “the lightest possible punishment.”

Church authorities decided that since the marriages were “not marriages, she did not violate the church’s constitution.”

This time, things are a little different. The 16 same-sex marriages she’s accused of presiding over in the new charges were legal since they were performed “during the five-month period in 2008 when same-sex marriage was legal in California.”

Spahr’s defender in the case, Scott Clark, said the church is “trying to sanction a minister for performing legal marriages. This is unprecedented.”

JoAn Blackstone, who is the prosecutor, said the distinction is immaterial. The marriages may well have been legal under state law, she said, but were “expressly prohibited” by the same ruling that acquitted Spahr in 2008. Blackstone said the case hinges on “a narrow issue of church law” and is unrelated to the public debate over same-sex marriage.

Unfortunately for the church, the public debate over same-sex marriage is precisely the issue. For a clergy person to be forbidden from performing a wedding ceremony that is legal, then to be brought up on charges after performing a legal ceremony is outrageous. It is another example of the conflict between church and state—and the impossible, and seemingly immoral, positions the church continues to put its clergy into.

While it is true that church law considers marriage as “a civil contract between a woman and a man,” at the time Spahr married these 16 couples, the state of California considered marriage a “civil contract” between a couple made up of opposite or same genders. The key here is that marriage is a “civil contract”—under the legal auspices of the state and not the church. For the church to claim they “have no wiggle room” on the charges pending against Spahr is disingenuous at best, and sad at worst. Either the church is, once again, exerting its conservative muscle to make an example of one of its own as a warning to other clergy who may step out of line, or the church is in such a sad state that it feels it has no choice but to defend a law that continues to exclude and harm a segment of God’s children.

The law Spahr is accused of violating is unjust and as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” To Spahr’s credit, she has no trouble following that advice, telling the Press Democrat: “It’s a real faith issue for me,” she said. “I think I would be in jeopardy if I didn’t do it.”

Spahr will go on trial sometime in August or September.