Georgia Clergy Statement Calling for the Life of Kelly Gissendaner to be Spared

February 28, 2015, 11:04 am | Posted by

As religious leaders, we are deeply concerned that the execution of Kelly Gissendaner is scheduled to be carried out in a matter of weeks by the State of Georgia. We respectfully write to you as a key public servant who can make the critical difference in this tragic case of national importance.

Our various faith traditions and teachings hold that all life is sacred. On the issue of the death penalty, we unanimously believe that fairness must be paramount. We also believe in the power of mercy.

Shaped by these beliefs, we find grounds for the commutation of Kelly’s sentence to a sentence of life without parole. These grounds include:

- Kelly has accepted full responsibility for her involvement in the murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner, saying “it is impossible to put into words the overwhelming sorrow and remorse I feel … there is just no way to capture the depth of my sorrow and regret. I would change everything if I could.”

- Over the course of her 18 years of incarceration, Kelly has experienced a profound spiritual transformation, maturing as a person and in her faith. Her journey is vividly demonstrated in her support of other inmates and her witness to young people in prison-prevention programs. On more than one occasion, Kelly has prevented another inmate from taking her own life. As one correctional officer said in the clemency petition, “Her witness has been an amazing beacon in a very dark place. Kelly touches everybody …The kindness and witness she shares with inmates in lockdown has a positive ripple effect.”

- Kelly is respected by Department of Corrections staff; she is seen as an example to other inmates and viewed as an asset to the institution. A former warden said of Kelly, “[s]he can provide hope to the most desperate female offender in a manner no one else could possibly understand.”

- If the state proceeds to execute Kelly, it will be the first time in the modern death penalty era (post-1976) that Georgia has executed an individual who was not the “trigger person” — that is, a person who did not physically kill the victim and was not present at the scene when the murder occurred.

While we can recognize and deeply sympathize with the profound grief of the parents and extended family of Doug Gissendaner, we also must attend to the ongoing grief of Kelly’s children who have already lost a father and who will experience immeasurable pain in losing another parent. In solidarity with their pleas for their mother’s life, in keeping with the value of mercy, and in hope for the good works Kelly could perform during a sentence of life without parole, we ask that Kelly’s life be spared.

To add your name to the letter, click here and enter your information. A very temporary stay has been granted on Kelly’s case. More than 542 Georgia clergy have already added their support to this petition.

You can watch a video about Kelly here.

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Forward Together, Not One Step Back

February 20, 2015, 1:01 pm | Posted by

The following is a guest post from one of FPL’s interns, Amanda Smith. Amanda is a senior at George Washington University.

This Valentine’s Day, the Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, told the thousands of people gathered in downtown Raleigh that this Valentine’s Day was not simply about flowers and candy, but was a time to address America’s heart problem. Rev. Barber, along with more than 170 groups from across the state, marched towards the North Carolina capitol building as part of this year’s annual Moral March. The diversity of the crowd was made evident by the issues they were there to address: voting rights, health care reform, public school teacher pay, immigration, anti-religious discrimination, raising the minimum wage, anti-fracking, and equal pay.

unnamed-1Thousands of attendees, observers and signs united rally goers by the same movement in spite of the many issues they were there to represent. Rev. Barber said that our nation does not have a right or left partisan problem, but that we the people have a heart problem. It is a heart problem, he said, when greed, ego and beating an opponent become more important than lifting up humanity. It is a heart problem when corporations matter more than people. It is a heart problem when after 50 years, Selma’s history is being repeated in North Carolina as voting rights are being threatened. These issues are why the crowds united under one chant saying, “Forward together, not one step back.”

How can we shock the heart of this country? How can we move this nation not towards the right or the left, but to consider its heart condition? Reverend Barber said, “I still believe there’s a God who can change a stony heart.” The crowds were charged with a challenge: Shock this state. Reverend Barber rallied the crowds to give North Carolina a shock to its stony heart. One speaker said, “Instead of getting angry, I got active.” Through active voting, informed populations and courageous action, we can give America’s democracy the shock to send our country into a new era of social justice.

The Moral March began nine years ago as a mass people’s assembly to hold lawmakers accountable to the people of North Carolina. As seen this past weekend on a freezing Valentine’s Day morning, the movement has not grown stale, but has a charged and beating heart ready to fix the divisive, political issues preventing America from moving forward.


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Must-reads on Georgia’s Religious Discrimination Bill

February 12, 2015, 1:55 pm | Posted by

The ongoing debate in the Georgia state capitol about bills labeled “religious freedom” legislation has been moving fast and marred by misleading arguments. Contrary to claims made by supporters, the bills in question — H.B. 218 and H.B. 29 — are unnecessary, divisive and dangerous. Here’s some coverage of the debate and analysis of the legislation that cuts to the heart of the matter.

Legal scholars against the Teasley bill
A letter from 18 distinguished legal scholars to Governor Deal and the Leadership of the Georgia Legislature detailing objections and concerns regarding the “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act.”

Religious liberty law needed? Unintened consequences skew freedom
By Peter Berg and David Key Sr., Atlanta Journal-Constitution
An op-ed by faith leaders explaining that their commitment to religious freedom informs their opposition to this legislation.

Religious Freedom Proposal in Georgia Draws Baptists into Debate
By Don Byrd, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
The BJC, the church’s foremost authority on religious freedom, raises questions about the legislation and notes that the organization officially opposed a similar bill in Georgia last year.

Religious freedom bill misnamed and unnecessary
By K. David Cooke, Jr., The Macon Telegraph
Cooke, the district attorney for the Macon judicial circuit and a member of the Baptist Committee for Religious Liberty’s board of directors, explains some incredibly dangerous potential consequences of passing this legislation.

Atlanta fire chief fired after calling gays ‘vile’ claims religious bias
By Jenny Jarvie, Los Angeles Times
Supporters point to the firing of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran as proof that the legislation is necessary. This story shows that Cochran was fired for violating workplace policy, defying orders from the mayor, exposing the city to lawsuits, and creating a hostile work environment — not because of his religion.


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Immigration is a pro-life issue

January 20, 2015, 8:32 pm | Posted by

As Catholics committed to building a culture of life, we write to urge our fellow Catholics in Congress to support the U.S. bishops’ effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Our nation’s inhumane and flawed immigration policies leave migrant women, children and families abandoned by the side of the road. As Cardinal Séan O’Malley put it in a homily at the US-Mexico border last year: “We know that the border is lined with unmarked graves of thousands who die alone and nameless.” Immigration is “another pro-life issue,” the cardinal reminds us, echoing our Holy Father Pope Francis, who views abortion, extreme economic inequality and the death of migrants as part of a “globalization of indifference” and a “throwaway culture” that treats human beings as disposable.

There are more than two dozen pro-life Catholics in the House of Representatives. Many of them will join thousands of people of faith, including some of us, at the March for Life in Washington later this week. As brothers and sisters in faith, we urge these elected officials and all Catholics to defend the sanctity of human lives at all stages. We recognize the image of God in the migrant at the border, in the prisoner on death row, in the pregnant woman and in the hungry child.

The immigration crisis will not be solved by threats to shut down government agencies, enforcement-only strategies or piecemeal approaches. Breaking up immigrant families and denying protection to those fleeing gang or cartel violence, as just one example, is neither a humane or effective strategy. Comprehensive immigration reform that would create an earned path to citizenship for those in the shadows, expedite family reunification, strengthen refugee protection, and address why desperate people reluctantly uproot and cross borders, deserves a vote now.

Delay and partisan bickering will only lead to more hardship, suffering and death.

Rev. Larry Snyder
President, Catholic Charities USA

Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza (retired)
Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston

John J. DeGioia
President, Georgetown University

Bishop William S. Skylstad (retired)
Diocese of Spokane
Former President, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Donald M. Kerwin, Jr.
Executive Director, Center for Migration Studies

Michael Galligan-Stierle
President, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities

Rev. Michael Sheeran, S.J.
President, Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities

Rev. Michael J. Graham, S.J.
President, Xavier University (Ohio)

Rev. Robert L. Niehoff, S.J.
President, John Carroll University

Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, S.J.
President, Loyola University Chicago

Rev. Kevin Wildes, S.J.
President, Loyola University New Orleans

Thomas W. Keefe
President, University of Dallas

Rev. James Greenfield
President, Conference of Major Superiors of Men

Sr. Sharon Holland, IHM,
President, Leadership Conference of Women Religious

Rev. Timothy Kesicki, S.J.
President, Jesuit Conference USA

Armando Borja
National Director, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

Stephen Schneck
Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies
The Catholic University of America

Frank Monahan
Former Director, Office of Government Liaison
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Francis X. Doyle
Associate General Secretary (retired)
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS
Executive Director, NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby

Sr. Patricia Chappell
Executive Director, Pax Christi USA​

Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J.
President, Fordham University

Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J.
President, College of the Holy Cross

Rev. John P. Fitzgibbons, S.J.
President, Regis University

Patricia McGuire
President, Trinity Washington University

Antoine M. Garibaldi, Ph.D.
President, University of Detroit Mercy

Rev. Thomas B. Curran
President, Rockhurst University

John J. Hurley
President, Canisius College

Linda M. LeMura, Ph.D.
President, Le Moyne College

Sr. Candace Introcaso
President, La Roche College

Rev. Bernard O’Connor
President, DeSales University

Dr. Francesco C. Cesareo
President, Assumption College

Donna M. Carroll
President, Dominican University

Thomas W. Keefe
President, University of Dallas

Thomas Kunkel
President, St. Norbert College

Rev. Jeffrey von Arx, S.J.
President, Fairfield University

Moya Dittmeier
Executive Director, Conference for Mercy Higher Education

Rev. Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J.
Rector of the Jesuit Community
Loyola Marymount University

A. Gabriel Esteban
President, Seton Hall University

Nancy H. Blattner
President, Caldwell University

Br. Norman Hipps
President, Saint Vincent College

John Smarrelli Jr.
President, Christian Brothers University

Mary A. Meehan
President, Alverno College

Donald P. Taylor
President, Cabrini College

Rev. Timothy Lenchak
President, Divine Word College

Anne Munley
President, Marywood University

Sharon Latchaw Hirsch
President, Rosemont College

Jim Collins
President, Loras College

Br. John R. Paige
President, Holy Cross College

Kathleen Maas Weigert
Professor of Women and Leadership
Loyola University Chicago

Timothy Matovina
Executive Director, Institute for Latino Studies
University of Notre Dame

Rev. Daniel G. Groody
Director of Immigration Initiatives
Institute for Latino Studies
University of Notre Dame

Rev. T. Michael McNulty, S.J.
MacLean Professor of Philosophy
St. Joseph’s University

Helen Alvare
Professor of Law
George Mason University School of Law

Jeannine Hill Fletcher
Professor of Theology
Fordham University

John Sniegocki
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics
Xavier University

Suzanne C. Toton, Ed.D.
Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies
Villanova University

Tobias Winright
Maeder Endowed Chair of Health Care Ethics
Saint Louis University

Paul Lakeland
Director, Center for Catholic Studies
Fairfield University

Terrence W. Tilley
Professor of Catholic Theology
Fordham University

Vincent Miller
Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture
University of Dayton

Kathryn Getek Soltis
Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics
Villanova University

Hosffman Ospino
Assistant Professor of Theology and Education
Boston College

Kelly S. Johnson
Associate Professor, Religious Studies
University of Dayton

Una M. Cadegan
Associate Professor, Department of History
University of Dayton

Charles T. Strauss
Assistant Professor of History
Mount St. Mary’s University

Ron Pagnucco, Associate Professor
Department of Peace Studies
College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University

Rev. Fred Kammer, S.J.
Director, Jesuit Social Research Institute
Loyola University New Orleans

Alex Mikulich
Jesuit Social Research Institute
Loyola University New Orleans

Leadership Team, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
Sr. Pat McDermott, RSM President
Sr. Eileen Campbell, RSM
Sr. Anne Curtis, RSM
Sr. Deborah Troillett, RSM
Sr. Mary Pat Garvin, RSM

Rev. Raymond Finch, MM
Superior General, Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers

Thomas Allio, Jr.
Diocesan Social Action Director (retired)
Diocese of Cleveland

Rev. Sean Carroll, S.J.
Executive Director, Kino Border Initiative
Nogales, AZ

Charles C. Camosy
Associate Prof. of Theological and Social Ethics
Fordham University

Peter H. Beisheim
Director, Catholic Studies Department
Stonehill College, MA

Christopher G. Kerr
Executive Director, Ignatian Solidarity Network

Gerry Lee
Director, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

Karen Clifton
Executive Director, Catholic Mobilizing Network

Patrick Carolan
Executive Director, Franciscan Action Network

Kerry A. Robinson
Executive Director, National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management

John Gehring
Catholic Program Director, Faith in Public Life

Walter Grazer
Former Policy Advisor for International Religious Freedom and Human Rights, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Christopher Hale
Senior Fellow, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good

Richard R. Gaillardetz
Joseph Professor of Catholic Theology
Boston College

Mark J. Allman
Chair of Religious and Theological Studies
Merrimack College

Dolores Christie
Executive Director (retired)
Catholic Theological Society of America

Christopher Pramuk
Associate Professor of Theology
Xavier University

Kevin Ahern
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Manhattan College

Daniel Finn
Professor of Economics and Theology
St. John’s University (MN)

M. Shawn Copeland
Professor of Theology
Boston College

Rev. John A. Coleman, S.J.
Associate Pastor, St. Ignatius Church (San Francisco)

Rev. Joseph Nangle, OFM
Washington, DC

Eugene McCarraher
Associate Professor of Humanities
Villanova University

Sr. Paulette Skiba, BVM
Professor of Religious Studies
Clarke University

Thomas Ryan
Director, Loyola Institute for Ministry
Loyola University New Orleans

Billy Kangas
Writer, Patheos Catholic

Peter H. Beisheim
Director, Catholic Studies Department

Lisa Sowell Cahill
Monan Professor of Theology
Boston College



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What if Pope Francis gave the State of the Union address?

January 20, 2015, 12:58 pm | Posted by

Pope Francis is arguably the most compelling leader in the world today. Unless you’re one of those hyperventilating Fox News pundits or a certain American cardinal pining for the good old days of pray-pay-and-obey Catholicism, chances are you stand in awe of how quickly Francis has resuscitated an ancient institution nearly on life support after decades of clergy abuse scandals and the first resignation of a pope in six centuries.

The pope isn’t a traditional politician, but he is a savvy global leader who understands optics and the art of diplomacy. Simply put, this is a man with political and moral capital to burn. His decisive role in helping President Barack Obama strike a historic rapprochement with Cuba was the latest signal that the Vatican is back as a formidable geopolitical player. The Catholic church, of course, began navigating political currents, both secular and ecclesiastical, centuries before our American republic was a glimmer in the eye of Thomas Jefferson and Co. In traditional Catholic teaching, “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains. Or, as Pope Francis phrased it a bit more colorfully in one morning homily: “A good Catholic meddles in politics.”

As Obama prepares to give his State of the Union address tonight, I can’t help wondering what Pope Francis would say to Congress and the American people if handed the microphone. The idea is not as crazy as it might sound. House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, both Catholics, invited the pope to address a joint session of Congress during his visit to the United States in September. If Francis accepts the offer, which news reports this week suggest he will, it would be a first for a pope. Aware of the obvious chutzpah needed to try and channel this enigmatic and eloquent pope, here’s my take on what Francis might say to a polarized Congress and a nation in desperate need of moral vision.

Good evening!

I ask that you forgive my English. I know some of you speak Spanish, so if I have trouble, perhaps I even mix up my fútbol with your football, I will revert to my mother tongue, no? I am filled with joy to be in this beautiful country, a nation born of hope and ideals. All men are created equal! Through the fire of a civil war, your country held to that promise first given in faith by God and shed blood to overcome the sin of slavery. I think of the hands worn down by chains that built this magnificent Capitol building. Could those slaves have imagined someone with their skin color as president? The American story is about striving and struggle, of being lost and then finding a way through darkness. This is our human story. We are all on a journey. God gives us a destination and affirms our sacred dignity — even when we doubt it.

My brothers and sisters, our world is broken. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to listen knows this. We sometimes prefer to be blind and deaf to this reality. So many people discarded, thrown away into vast oceans of indifference. We no longer weep! On my drive here tonight, I saw men and women — also children — bundled in the cold. The sidewalk is their bed. The same is true in Rome. In Buenos Aires. In Bombay. A homeless woman dies in the gutter. Do we stop? The stock market moves an inch, and that is front-page news. These upside-down priorities tell us our culture is sick. How do we heal the wounds of loneliness, alienation and injustice? All of us in this chamber tonight are privileged. Let us use whatever power we have not to glorify ourselves or weave cocoons of comfort around our lives, but risk going out to the margins, to the peripheries where there is pain, anger, disillusion. It is good to be made uncomfortable.

“Woe to those who make unjust laws,” the prophet reminds us. Please do not forget the migrant who crosses the desert. She has a family and holds tight to dreams. Do not abandon the unborn in the womb. Justice and human rights are not served by defacing the image of God. Do not discard the elderly or think the dying are served by the false mercy of euthanasia. I beg you to use the great influence and wealth found in this mighty nation to serve the common good. Say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. Building a culture of life is impossible if workers can’t earn a living wage, pregnant women are denied the support they need, and families lack good health care. Some expect that wealth in the hands of the few will trickle down. This is a fantasy. The poor are still waiting! The market must serve human beings, not the other way around. The moral measure of your nation, any nation, is not judged by the stock value of corporations or the billions spent on weapons of war. Wealth is a gift, and that can be a good, but not when profit is made a god. 

I ask you with special urgency: Do all that you can to protect the gift of creation! Human beings are destroying our environment. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his 2010 World Day of Peace message, said: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers …” The growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees,” he said, must awaken our conscience and lead us to take action. We often speak today of rights. What about our responsibilities to each other? So many worship at the altar of individualism that we forget that human beings only flourish in community. Solidarity is a good word to remember. Listen again to one of your American prophets, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” 

As I leave you, I give my sincere appreciation for your commitment to public service. This is a true vocation. I pray that you will live up to its noble calling.

This essay originally appeared in the National Catholic Reporter on Jan. 20, 2015

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