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Determined pastor fights to preserve the confidential nature of the pastoral office
B Y M I C H E L L E M I L L E R , E D I T O R I A L A S S I S T A N T
|In the middle of a fight pitting religious freedom against the state's right to criminal evidence, Rev. Rich Hamlin '84 stands true to his religious beliefs.|
"It's a fight worth fighting," declared the Rev. Rich Hamlin '84, who is in the middle of a fight pitting religious freedom against the state's right to criminal evidence.
Hamlin, pastor of Evangelical Reformed Church in Tacoma, got a call on July 7, 1997, from a woman seeking a minister to meet with her son. Hamlin met with the man and provided him prayer and spiritual counsel as he unburdened his soul. Three days later the young man, Scott Anthony Martin, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in the death of his 3-month-old son. When the case came to trial, Martin tried to keep Hamlin's testimony out by citing the state's priest-penitent law protecting confessions.
The prosecutor argued that the priest-penitent privilege doesn't apply because only certain denominations, such as Catholic, Greek-Orthodox and Episcopalian, have the privilege of confidentiality.
"The competing values between church, state, justice and the pastoral office are not easy matters," Hamlin said. "These are issues that have far-reaching implications for the entire church.
The confidential nature of the pastoral office must continue to be recognized, protected and maintained. If it is not, the fundamental nature of the relationship between clergy and parishioner changes."
As Martin's case progressed, the county prosecutor ordered Hamlin to a deposition, where Hamlin respectfully refused to disclose the confidential statements made during Martin's confession. The pastor was then brought into court and found in contempt. The Pierce County Superior Court ruled that no clergy has the right to confidentiality regardless of denomination.
"There's not even an acknowledgment that the judicial system is stepping into the sovereignty of the church," Hamlin said.
Hamlin was then ordered to the Pierce County Jail. His lawyer, however, was able to obtain an appeal hearing before he was scheduled to go to jail, which froze the incarceration order. In July 1998, the Washington State Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's ruling stating that "confession is a necessary component of his (Hamlin's) religious practice . . . it is a duty that the pastor must fulfill based upon the tenets of his faith."
Hamlin is thrilled not only that he won't be going to jail (barring an appeal), but also that case law has been established.
"This is a published opinion, clergy in the future can rightly look someone in the eye and say "what you do tell me is confidential."
Prosecutors may appeal that ruling, which would take the case to the state Supreme Court. Martin, who has been held in the Pierce County Jail since July 1997, will go to trial after any appeal process is complete.
Looking back, would Hamlin have done anything differently?
"No," said Hamlin. "I'm not arguing that the pastoral office is a vault. I'm arguing that the pastor has to weigh the ethics of the entire situation and the competing values - justice and the pastoral office. And, in this case, the pastoral office needed to be protected."
The pastor's involvement in the case has taken him to Washington, D.C., where he was asked to testify before the congressional subcommittee on the Constitution in February 1998. That group of congressmen is reworking the fundamental elements of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in summer 1997, Hamlin said. Supporters are hoping to have a new law in effect this fall.
Between appeals and hearings, Hamlin's primary responsibilities lie with his 65-member church. He is also the assistant director of Youth for Christ, a mission organization that works with nonchurched youth and their families.
After earning a bachelor's degree in education from PLU, Hamlin taught high school for four years. He is four months away from completing his master's degree in pastoral ministry from Trinity Theological Seminary.
PLU is a long-standing tradition in the Hamlin household - parents, Richard '59 and Joann '60; and brothers, Randy '85, Rod '88 and Ryan '91 - all know what it means to be a Lute.
Since those days, Hamlin has kept in touch with three other alums also in full-time ministry. For the past eight years, Rusty Carlson '86, Jeff Clare '84, Scott Sears '86 and Hamlin have met every two weeks for accountability, prayer and ministry perspective.
Hamlin and his wife, Lynn, have three children, Isaiah, 6, Claire, 4, and Joel, 2. They live in an 96-year-old farmhouse in Tacoma, where they enjoy spending time as a family.
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