By Ronnie Cohen
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A lesbian minister rebuked by the U.S. Presbyterian Church for blessing the weddings of same-sex couples in California faced the denomination's highest court on Friday for a hearing she hopes will lift her censure.
The ecclesiastical appeal for the Rev. Jane Spahr, 69, caps the latest of her decades-long series of conflicts with church authorities over greater acceptance of homosexuality in Christianity and in the lives of its followers.
The case highlights deep divisions within the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and its 2 million members, as well as other mainline Protestant denominations over gay and lesbian marriage.
Presbyterian ministers and church elders from around the United States assembled on Friday in a San Antonio hotel for the hearing before the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the church's highest judicial authority.
"I pray for the court, the couples, the families and the church that the decision made will be one of justice and love," Spahr told Reuters after the hearing.
The court must decide whether to uphold Spahr's 2010 censure for defying the church by officiating at the nuptials of 16 same-sex couples in California. A decision is expected within a week. The tribunal previously censured her -- a reprimand that carries no actual discipline -- but set aside the rebuke pending her appeal.
Spahr's appeal came as secular support for gay marriage gains favor in federal court and in the legislatures of several states, including Washington and New Jersey.
Ordained in 1974 two years before coming to the realization that she was a lesbian, Spahr made headlines in 1992 when she became the first openly gay minister called to a Presbyterian congregation.
While church courts denied her a Rochester, New York, parish because of her sexual orientation, they have never moved to strip Spahr of her ordination, and she went on to minister to gays and lesbians as a traveling evangelist.
The nuptials Spahr presided over were among some 18,000 gay weddings performed and legally recognized in California during a six-month window in 2008, after the state Supreme Court struck down a ban on same-sex matrimony but before voters approved a state constitutional amendment reinstating it.
"When the state of California said 'yes,' and then I pronounced them married in the name of the church and the state, there was exuberance beyond compare," Spahr said earlier this week at her home in San Francisco.
"To send these couples away from the church would be going against what I believe about God and God's welcome."
The church last spring formally opened the ranks of its clergy to homosexuals, prompting Presbyterians opposed to gay clergy to announce they were leaving the denomination to form a new church, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.
On the eve of the hearing on Thursday, about 100 people sang, prayed for the commission to embrace same-gender marriages, and lit candles, welcoming Spahr with an often emotional service at University Presbyterian Church.
"I've been to seminary. I came out as a lesbian and I've experienced utter hopelessness when I was denied ordination because of who I love," said Selisse Berry, an Oakland woman whose lesbian wedding Spahr blessed in 2008.
One of the women Spahr married in 2008, the Rev. Lisa Bove of Los Angeles, lit a candle for her daughters. "I have a hope that I'll never have to again try to explain to my children what a Permanent Judicial Commission appeal is," Bove told those gathered in the A-frame San Antonio church.
Spahr gave the church a communion cup and plate. "For those of us who have been labeled less than," she said, "God not only accepts us to the table, but invites us and welcomes us."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Daniel Trotta)