An ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church USA who once worked in Minneapolis was acquitted Monday by a church panel of charges that he violated the church constitution when he legally married his gay partner in California in 2008.

The case of the Rev. Erwin Barron, who was associate pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in the 1990s, is likely to be appealed. It is the first time the divided church, which sidestepped the issue of gay marriage at its national convention last summer in Minneapolis, has dealt with the possible discipline of a gay pastor who legally married a same-sex partner.

Barron, a college professor in San Francisco whose church credentials remain with the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, faced a 2 1/2-hour trial before a presbytery panel of six at Oak Grove Presbyterian Church in Bloomington. After almost three hours of closed deliberations, the panel split 3-3. A two-thirds vote was required for conviction, which lawyers said could have led to defrockment.

"I'm relieved," Barron said. "I wish it was more definitive. ... The decision is not clear for the church."

The Rev. Neil Craigan, a White Bear Lake pastor who was on the prosecuting committee, said his group will consider an appeal. The case could rise to the synod level and possibly to the national church for final disposition.

"I think there is a high probability that we will appeal to get more clarity on the issues that we face as a denomination," Craigan said. "We've never had a trial of this kind before."

The unusual hearing, held in a church community room, featured defense and prosecution lawyers who were Presbyterians who volunteered their services. About 25 people attended, most of them Barron supporters from Westminster. The six-person judicial commission -- three pastors and three church elders -- sat with files and copies of the church constitution at a table facing a witness table and a lectern, where the lawyers argued their case.

At issue was whether Barron violated the church constitution, which says that church officers must "live either in fidelity with the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers."

Previously investigated

Barron has publicly defended gay marriage, writing about the issue in church publications and other places. He has been previously investigated by the church for unchaste and immoral behavior, charges that were dismissed by the church investigating committee. The investigation leading to Monday's trial was spurred by a complaint from an elder at a Minnetonka church. Both sides declined to name the accuser, whom Barron said he has never met.

Barron left Minneapolis and Westminster in 1998 to attend graduate school in California. At the time, he said, he was coming to terms with both his sexuality and his future. He earned a doctorate in Christian ethics and met his partner, Roland Abellano. They married in September 2008, one of the few months that gay marriage was legal in California.

Barron said the ceremony, which was in a Presbyterian church, was planned to avoid conflict with church law. It occurred after a church lawyer had given legal advice and the pastor got permission from the church's governing body to "solemnize" a civil marriage and then bless it. Barron said the marriage and the blessing were separated when the pastor stopped the ceremony, said the Presbyterian church had not recognized the union and that the church could only bless it.

"I do not consider myself to be married in the eyes of the church," Barron testified.

Prosecuting attorney Brian Wood said Barron had been married in a church and, he said, had written about the ceremony as if it were sanctioned by the church. Regardless, Wood said, the same-sex union is a "clear and distinct violation" and Barron must be disciplined.

Barron's attorney, Timothy Cahn, said Barron had been unfairly investigated for the same issue twice. He said the church constitution does not bar civil marriages and that Barron's marriage clearly was not an ecclesiastical one.

Former parishioners

In the audience was Westminster parishioner Sara Donaldson, who called Barron a "superb minister" who had an especially positive influence on her children. Vincent Thomas, a leading elder at the church, said he regretted that Barron had faced what he saw as repetitive church investigations.

"It is difficult for the church," Thomas said. "We have to have the debate, but it is painful to watch people we love and support being accused of misconduct."

Craigan said a decision on an appeal will likely come this week.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380