Published: Sep 12, 2011 11:03 PM EDT

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Retired Episcopal Bishop Walter C. Righter, an early defender of gay rights in the church who was accused of heresy when he ordained a gay deacon in 1990, has died.
    
A spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh said Righter died Sunday after several weeks of hospice care. He was 87.
    
Righter was an assistant bishop with the Diocese of Newark, N.J., when he made the decision to ordain the Rev. Barry Stopfel, a deacon he knew to be gay. Righter was charged with heresy, but a church court ruled that church doctrine did not explicitly bar the ordination of practicing homosexuals. The ruling averted the first heresy trial of an Episcopal bishop since the 1920s. It also contributed to a church split.

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