When is a same-sex ceremony a marriage?

There was an interesting decision this week in a Presbyterian Church (USA) case involving a retired California minister who has married several same-sex couples.

PCUSA’s highest court cleared the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr of charges that she violated the denomination’s constitution by marrying two gay couples. The reason was that same-sex couples can’t be married, so Spahr could not be “found guilty of doing that which, by definition, cannot be done.”

Talk about a technicality.

08d3501bf5694718918d7fd44d258d8f.jpgA lower court had found Spahr guilty. Her case has received tremendous attention within PCUSA, which has been tying itself in knots for decades over homosexuality.

PCUSA courts had previously ruled that there are no constitutional prohibitions against same-sex ceremonies that are distinct from marriages. The latest decision maintained that distinction.

“The PJC’s decision reaffirms what our directory of worship says, that marriage is between a man and woman and that no officer should present a same-sex union as a marriage,” said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the PCUSA’s General Assembly. “At the same time the decision recognizes the importance of pastoral care and the appropriateness of same-sex blessing services as long as they are not presented as marriage ceremonies.”

The court said that Spahr did not describe the ceremonies she performed as marriages. But Spahr, who is a lesbian herself, said after the decision that she would continue to perform same-sex marriages, not wanting to perform an alternative rite that is “separate but unequal.”

Interestingly, the court noted that Spahr may feel that she is acting as a “prophet” to the church.

“Prophecy contains risk and uncertainty both for those who would speak and for those who listen,” the court said.

Of course, Pope Benedict, when at the ecumenical service in NYC, warned of “so-called prophetic actions” that are splintering Christian traditions. He didn’t name those actions.

Not that many Presbyterians who favor same-sex marriage (or unions that are different from marriage) care all that much what the pope says…

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.