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Sitting with her granddaughter in a San Francisco park on Friday, the Rev. Jane Spahr was reveling in a landmark decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) regarding the marriage of same-sex couples.

"Justice and love became friends this day," said Spahr, 71, a lesbian activist who defied the mainline Protestant denomination's laws by repeatedly marrying gay couples.

Spahr's first trial before a church tribunal, which attracted national attention, was held at Church of the Roses in Santa Rosa in 2006.

She was ultimately acquitted in that case, then tried again in 2010 at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Napa and ultimately convicted by the church's highest court.

Spahr was issued a rebuke — the mildest penalty under church law — but an assembly of North Coast Presbyterian leaders refused to impose it on a 74-18 vote in 2012.

At the Presbyterians' biennial General Assembly in Detroit on Thursday, church representatives voted 61 percent to 39 percent to allow pastors to preside over same-sex weddings in California and the 18 other states and District of Columbia where the unions are legal.

That decision is final, while a 71 percent to 29 percent vote to redefine marriage in the church constitution as a "unique commitment between two people" requires ratification by a majority of the denomination's 172 regional bodies, called presbyteries.

The Presbyterian constitution, called the Book of Order, says marriage is between a man and a woman, a law church prosecutors and Spahr's critics said she openly violated.

Spahr never denied her actions, calling as witnesses in her trials couples she had married and asserting that she had acted out of "conscience and conviction."

Sharp differences over homosexuality have roiled the Presbyterian Church (USA) for more than three decades, contributing to an exodus of members "seeking a more conservative home," according to the denomination's website.

Membership fell by more than one-fourth in the last decade, to 1.7 million in 2013 from 2.4 million in 2003. Peak membership was 4.5 million in 1965.

Spahr, who is retired from the ministry but continues to officiate at weddings, baptisms and funerals, said she felt more gratitude than vindication from the General Assembly's actions.

"We want all our people to love another," she said. "The church should be the first place to say, 'How can we help love?'"

Spahr said she had been marrying same-gender couples since she was ordained in 1974 and had long ago lost count of how many ceremonies she had performed.

Jeff Owens of Santa Rosa, married twice by Spahr to his longtime partner, David Hanson, said the church assembly's votes were "God's love showing through."

"I think it's absolutely wonderful; it's what we were fighting for," Owens said.

Neither man is a Presbyterian, but Owens said they might join the church now and predicted that others — gay and straight — will do the same.

But Rev. James Berkley, who leads a Presbyterian congregation in central Washington, said the mainline Protestant denomination's "will continue its slide into oblivion" by approving of homosexual marriage.

In April, Berkley and his congregation left the Presbyterian Church (USA) and joined the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, a theologically conservative group founded in 2012.

"It's a very sad day," said Berkley, contending that the Presbyterian assembly had to "repudiate Scripture" and its own constitution to revise the man-woman definition of marriage, which said is "very clear" in the Bible.

It was Berkley's email in March 2004 that prompted the local Presbytery of the Redwoods to investigate and ultimately prosecute Spahr.

Berkley said in a 2008 interview that Spahr had "thumbed her nose" at church law.

While liberals have now "won the day" in the mainline church, Berkley said Friday many evangelicals will eventually leave.

Following Spahr's first acquittal in 2006, Rev. Dale Flowers, pastor at Santa Rosa's First Presbyterian Church, sent a letter to his congregation calling Spahr's actions "an egregious violation of our church's constitution."

Flowers declined to comment Friday.

Sara Taylor, a San Francisco attorney who defended Spahr and was also married by her to another woman, said the Presbyterian Church's acceptance of gays and lesbians was a long time coming.

"I think that minds have been changed, that hearts have been opened," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.