Separating Sin and Law



May 1996

Separating Sin and Law

-Ann Shoket

Sin is not a legal issue says Michael Rehill, who is defending the first person in 72 years to be tried as a heretic by the U.S. Episcopal Church.

So he argued on February 27 beneath the vaulted ceilings of a gothic cathedral in Wilmington. Rehill, a real estate development attorney who doubles as a lawyer for the church, tried to convince a panel of nine Episcopal bishops that there is no church doctrine that prohibits the ordination of a noncelibate homosexual.

Last year ten bishops filed formal charges, known as a "presentment," against retired bishop Walter Righter. The presentment, filed with the church's presiding U.S. bishop, claimed that Righter had violated church doctrine by ordaining an openly gay man as a church deacon in 1990 and by signing a pledge not to exclude homosexuals from the upper ranks of the church.

The first stage of the trial, which addressed only the threshold legal questions, resembled Supreme Court oral arguments. Rehill - a litigator rather than a clergyman - was grilled on religious history and scripture by the nine bishops. Citing as precedent the only other heresy trial in the church's history, Rehill argued that doctrine can only come from certain religious documents, which are silent on the subject of ordaining homosexuals. ...

Rehill, who is leading a defense team of five lawyers and three priests, says the presenters tried to shift the focus of the argument toward the question of the morality of homosexuality in general. "They are saying there is doctrine against being a noncelibate homosexual," not ordaining one, says Rehill. "That is not the case I am defending." ...

The 49 year-old Rehill, who is based in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, started as a criminal defense lawyer before getting involved in real estate work. "I stopped doing criminal law because I didn'r want someone else's life in my hands," says Rehill. "Now I have the whole church in my hands. It's a scary thing."

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