By Ronnie Cohen
SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A Presbyterian court, in a case with implications for dozens of congregations exiting a denomination divided over homosexuality, convened on Thursday to decide if a California parish may break away with property worth millions of dollars.
Testimony began before the Synod of the Pacific, consisting of ministers and church elders from throughout the West, on a case stemming from a decision by the Community Presbyterian Church of Danville, an affluent San Francisco suburb, to join a more conservative denomination.
A San Francisco-area church governing body agreed in 2010 to allow the Danville congregation to keep real estate that had been appraised at nearly $14 million after its parishioners voted to split from the mainline Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
Critics of the move, however, have argued that the regional governing body lacked authority to approve the property transfer.
"We are here today because we believe the Presbytery of San Francisco has made an unauthorized gift of property," Joan Blackstone, a retired lawyer and church elder who represents opponents of the property transfer, said in opening statements.
Thursday's trial highlights deep divisions within the parent church and its 2 million members, as well as other mainstream Protestant denominations, over the ordination of gay clergy and blessing of same-sex unions.
Although it does not allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages, the Presbyterian Church allows its ministers to bless gay unions.
The synod's trial, held in a hotel banquet room near the San Francisco Airport, will decide whether the presbytery properly used the church's so-called "gracious-dismissal" policy to allow the Danville parish to leave with its buildings and more than 7 acres of land held in trust for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
The committee of local ministers "considered, prayed about it and decided the buildings should continue to be used by the Danville congregation as they continue to do God's work," the Rev. Joan Huff, a San Francisco minister who represents the presbytery, told the tribunal. "Grace is not always fair. Grace cannot be monetized. It cannot be bought, earned or won."
"It if could, it would cease to be grace," she said.
Blackstone urged the 10 commissioners hearing the case to consider the impact of their decision on church groups throughout the nation struggling with how to divide property.
OPENED CLERGY TO HOMOSEXUALS
The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. formally opened the ranks of its clergy to homosexuals last spring in a move that triggered a schism, prompting some opposed to gay clergy to form a new denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.
The Presbyterian Church's pension board further alienated some conservative congregants this month by approving benefits for same-gender partners and their children starting next year.
Upset over differences in biblical interpretation of social issues, including questions of gay life and abortion, the Danville congregation began separating from the parent church in 2010.
They want to join yet another offshoot denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. That church believes "unrepentant homosexual behavior is incompatible with the ordination vows."
"This case is going to establish a precedent of sorts in the minds of people in this denomination," Blackstone said in her opening trial statement. "It's going to be considered by congregations as they request to be dismissed."
The Kentucky-based denomination has endured other splits in its history, including schisms over slavery and the ordination of women. But the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the highest-ranking official in the church general assembly, said some congregations that have left the fold during the past 20 years have rejoined.
"I think it's sad that people are leaving," he said. "I see it more as a separation than a divorce and hope someday we can be reconciled."
The Danville church, founded in 1865, consists of about 1,800 members.
The Rev. Scott Farmer, the church's senior pastor, served on a task force charged with writing the "gracious-dismissal" policy, Blackstone said. She questioned whether Farmer had a conflict of interest when the Danville church was the first to ask to be dismissed under the policy.
Farmer could not be reached for comment.
A website for the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a conservative advocacy group, listed 35 congregations that had started the process of separating from the denomination since July. The First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, with more than 4,000 members, is the largest to take part in the exodus.
The synod is expected to issue a written decision next week.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)