Nearly 400 Catholic, Evangelical Leaders Issue Holy Week Call to End Death Penalty

March 31, 2015, 10:43 am | Posted by

As Christians begin a week commemorating the torture, suffering and execution of Jesus, prominent Catholic and evangelical leaders are urging public officials to end the use of capital punishment.

“All who reverence the sanctity of human life, created in the image of God, must never remain silent when firing squads, lethal injections, electric chairs and other instruments of death are viewed as morally acceptable,” nearly 400 Catholic theologians, women religious, Christian evangelical leaders and faith-based social justice advocates write in a statement released today. “We urge governors, prosecutors, judges and anyone entrusted with power to do all that they can to end a practice that diminishes our humanity and contributes to a culture of violence and retribution without restoration.”

Signatories on the statement include two former presidents of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; several presidents of Catholic universities; Miguel Diaz, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See; Sister Helen Prejean, a prominent anti-death penalty activist; Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK: A Catholic Social Justice Lobby; Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners; Shane Claiborne, Red Letter Christians/The Simple Way; David Gushee, a leading evangelical ethicist at Mercer University; Rev. Gabriel Salguero, President of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition; Lynne Hybels, evangelical author and activist; and Dr. Bill Coates, senior pastor of First Baptist Gainesville, the church attended by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal.

The Holy Week push comes at a time when a diverse set of religious leaders are speaking out against the death penalty and several high-profile cases have drawn national attention. Pope Francis has raised the issue of capital punishment several times in recent days, calling the practice “cruel, inhumane and degrading.” In liturgical reflections to be used by the pope during this week’s Good Friday meditations at the Colosseum in Rome – an annual Way of the Cross service that focuses on Christ’s torture and crucifixion – the Pope will read: “When will the death penalty, still practiced in many states, be abolished?”

Last Friday, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition became the first national association of evangelical congregations to issue a call for repealing the death penalty. The coalition is urging its 3,000-member congregations to support efforts to end capital punishment in states across the country. In a March 17 statement, the Catholic bishops of Nebraska urged support for “legislative efforts to repeal the death penalty and reform our criminal justice system.” Last month, four leading Catholic publications respected in both liberal and conservative circles – the National Catholic Reporter, the National Catholic RegisterOur Sunday Visitor and America magazine – issued a joint editorial calling for an end to the death penalty. More than 430 religious leaders, including Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, sent a Feb. 11 letter to Kansas legislators calling for an end to capital punishment.

The governor of Utah recently signed a bill that brings back firing squads as an option for executions. In Georgia, hundreds of clergy and other faith leaders have asked the state to commute the death sentence of Kelly Gissendaner, a Christian and student of theology. On March 17, Missouri executed a man who was missing twenty percent of the frontal lobe of his brain. Last spring, the botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate drew scrutiny of lethal injection procedures. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that will decide the constitutionality of lethal injection protocols in Oklahoma.

The full text of the letter is included below, and the list of signatories can be found here.

As Christians preparing for the holy days of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, we speak out with renewed urgency against the death penalty. Torture and execution is always a profound evil, made even more abhorrent when sanctioned by the government in the name of justice when other means of protecting society are available. All who reverence the sanctity of human life, created in the image of God, must never remain silent when firing squads, lethal injections, electric chairs and other instruments of death are viewed as morally acceptable.

We urge governors, prosecutors, judges and anyone entrusted with power to do all that they can to end a practice that diminishes our humanity and contributes to a culture of violence and retribution without restoration. We especially ask public officials who are Christian to join us in the solidarity of prayer this week as we meditate on the wounds of injustice that sicken our society. In many ways, capital punishment is the rotten fruit of a culture that is sown with the seeds of poverty, inequality, racism and indifference to life. We silence our hearts in prayer for those killed and families who mourn their loss. We can never know your pain and anger. Let us work together for healing, restorative justice and a system that punishes criminals without bringing more darkness and death into our world. As Pope Francis has reminded us, capital punishment is “cruel, inhumane and degrading” and “does not bring justice to the victims, but only foments revenge.”

It remains a shameful reality that the United States is one of the few developed nations in the world that still executes its citizens. Last week, the governor of Utah signed a bill that will bring back firing squads. Missouri recently executed a prisoner with severe brain damage. In Georgia, hundreds of clergy and other faith leaders have asked the state to commute the death sentence of Kelly Gissendaner — a Christian and student of theology — to life without parole. Several botched executions in recent years have pulled back the veil on this inhumane and ineffective practice. We are heartened by polling that shows Americans are increasingly opposed to the death penalty. Now is a critical time. The U.S. Supreme Court recently announced it would take up an appeal by a Florida death-row inmate challenging the state’s capital sentencing procedure, which permits inmates to be executed even when the jury is not unanimous. In April, The U.S Supreme Court will hear a case that will decide the constitutionality of lethal injection protocols in Oklahoma.

In this sacred season of suffering, death and new life, we pray that our simple Christian witness is received with open hearts. 


add a comment »

Georgia Jewish Leaders Speak Out Against “Religious Freedom” Bills

March 24, 2015, 1:07 pm | Posted by

Atlanta, GA – A group of Georgia’s Jewish leaders gathered at the Capitol Rotunda Tuesday to voice their opposition to the divisive “religious freedom” legislation in the state legislature. The group cited their opposition to the bill as members of the Jewish faith, as well as the concerns they share with countless other faith leaders about the legislation.

Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Congregation Gesher L’Torah said, “This bill does not add any protections, but fails to protect Georgians from those who are biased against them. Not a single voice representing our Jewish community has come forth to champion Senate Bill 129, which purports to be a defense of religious liberty. I believe that God is diminished when we impose upon the diversity of God’s handiwork our own limited mold. Those who would pass this unfair and unnecessary legislation choose a narrow vision that divides us over the limitless possibilities of what can be accomplished together in good faith.”

“In just a few days, Jews will join together to tell the story of Passover, the story of our Exodus, a story of oppression to freedom which resonates beyond our faith alone,” said  Rabbi Loren Lapidus of The Temple. “We will remind ourselves of our responsibility as a free people to bring freedom to others, to join hands in working together for a better future. To the legislators, I would say simply this: These bills are not the freedom we seek.”

Rev. Julie Pennington Russell of First Baptist Church of Decatur said, “As a follower of Jesus Christ my faith calls me to treat every man, woman, and child as I would wish to be treated. That principle is embedded in virtually all world religions. Creating a law that defies or weakens that basic principle hurts us all.”

These leaders are among the more than 200 clergy from many different denominations who signed a letter released at the beginning of the legislative session that urged legislators not to pass the “religious freedom” bills.

The press conference is part of an ongoing campaign by Georgia clergy to lobby against the passage of controversial “religious freedom” bills.

add a comment »

Ohio Clergy Deliver Letter to DeWine Calling for Withdrawal from Immigration Lawsuit

March 12, 2015, 2:48 pm | Posted by

Nearly 200 Ohio religious leaders cite faith, family values in immigration letter to Attorney General Mike DeWine

Columbus, OH – Today, a diverse group of Ohio clergy delivered a letter signed by nearly 200 faith leaders from across the state to Attorney General Mike DeWine calling for him to withdraw from the lawsuit blocking executive action that would protect immigrant families.

The clergy appealed to Attorney General DeWine as a person of faith and prayed he leave the lawsuit.

“I am a theologically conservative evangelical. I’m here today because this is a spiritual issue,” said Rev. Dr. Carl Ruby of Central Christian Church in Springfield. “I believe that Attorney General Mike DeWine is a man of faith, but I believe that he is wrong on this issue and that his actions are hurting people that God loves.”

“For Catholics, immigration is not a political issue. It’s a moral issue. It’s a gospel issue and it’s a life issue. For us, immigration should not be another matter of politics, but only of faith,” said Sister Mary Wendeln of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood in Cincinnati.

They asked Attorney General DeWine to instead work to protect immigrants and keep families from being separated.

“As religious leaders in Ohio, we are appealing to you Mr. DeWine. We are asking you to change your heard and mind and do the right thing – for all the children in Ohio and the United states whose families have been torn in two,” said Rev. Tim Ahrens of First Congregational Church in Columbus.

“As a pastor, I believe our immigration policies should reflect our values as a nation,” said Rev. Lynda Smith of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Athens. “Families are the foundation of our communities and should not be ripped apart.”

After praying with the member of Attorney General DeWine’s staff that received the letter, the clergy expressed hope that he would meet with them to discuss the issue and its importance to the faith community.

The text of the letter is below. The letter and full list of signers is available here.

Dear Attorney General DeWine:

As faith leaders committed to building a culture of life and family, we urge you to withdraw our state from the lawsuit seeking to block President Obama from using his executive authority to protect millions of immigrant and mixed-status families from being torn apart by deportation. The suit conflicts with pro-family values and the teachings of our faith.

Our nation’s inhumane and flawed immigration policies leave hardworking families, students and workers in constant danger of being separated indefinitely — and many in danger of deportation to countries rife with gang violence, murder and sex trafficking. To exacerbate these hazards, as the current lawsuit does, is to devalue the lives of our immigrant brothers and sisters. Comprehensive reform, not politically motivated lawsuits, are necessary to protect our fellow children of God who have come here to seek the American dream.

We hope that as a pro-life Catholic you will consider the words of Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who said during 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.” Putting more and more families on opposite sides of this divide is something we cannot abide. Instead, we call on you not only to withdraw from the current lawsuit, but also to strongly support President Obama’s plan to defer deportation for immigrant families.

add a comment »

Columbus Faith Leaders Stand With Noor Islamic Center In Solidarity Against Threats

March 10, 2015, 12:09 pm | Posted by

This morning, a diverse group of Columbus religious leaders gathered for a press conference in response to repeated threats against the Noor Islamic Center. The leaders called for an end to the violent threats, and expressed their solidarity with Columbus’s Muslim community

The Noor Center has received threats and harassing communications that include blaspheming drawings. The threats via mail and via phone have all been turned into the Hilliard Police and the FBI.

Rev. Rebecca Tollefson, Director of the Ohio Council of Churches, said, “Today, faith leaders of all backgrounds are standing shoulder to shoulder with our Islamic brothers and sisters. Distortion and misunderstanding about the basics of this faith have led to these threats.”

Rabbi Eric Woodward from Congregation Tifereth Israel said, “Jews and Muslims have a long history of getting along and being close to each other. But even if that were not the case, loving those around us is a human duty. We all stand in solidarity as people who want to worship in peace and live in peace.”

Rev. Lynda Smith of the North Unitarian Universalist Congregation said, “The Unitarian Universalist will be letting their congregations know that an attack on Muslims in an affront to us all, and to our shared values. This is why we are calling on other faith leaders to raise awareness about this injustice, this hate has to stop.”

“The increased cases of hate crime due to Islamophobia has victimized the Noor community in the last few weeks with threating calls full of profane language and harassment. These acts have frightened our community,” said Imran Malik, President of Noor Islamic Center.

add a comment »

Faith Leaders, Sen. Kaine Highlight Devastating Impact of Potential King v. Burwell Ruling

March 5, 2015, 5:24 pm | Posted by

Washington, DC – Today, prominent national religious leaders joined U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine to discuss the devastating potential consequences of a negative ruling in the King v. Burwell case that was argued before the Supreme Court yesterday.

“In his letter to the faithful on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis called us to be islands in the sea of indifference. The Affordable Care Act reaches into the lives of people who have been drowned in the sea of indifference,” said Sen. Tim Kaine. “We need to pray for the Supreme Court to have the wisdom to understand something that is very, very plain.”

The faith community played an integral role in organizing and advocating for the passage of healthcare reform – including many of today’s speakers. Now that the law is once again threatened in the Supreme Court, these leaders are working to raise awareness of the disastrous moral consequences of a negative ruling in King v. Burwell, as well as reaffirm their commitment to fighting for quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans.

“If every person is created in the image and likeness of God, doesn’t that mean they deserve access to healthcare? Millions of souls across the United States have found quality, affordable healthcare, and if the Supreme Court rules with the plaintiffs in this case, it will cause incredible suffering. This is a moral imperative,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The faith leaders stressed that the focus must remain the Americans whose healthcare and lives were at risk.

“This case is about more than six words. And while we might want to say that it is about just words, as a person of faith, I know this is about life and death,” said Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK Lobby and Nuns on the Bus organizer. “This is a situation where the Supreme Court can choose life. This is really about the common good, so we are advocating and praying that the Supreme Court will choose life over death.”

“We hear often about the numbers involved with the Affordable Care Act. But there’s a human side to the equation, and those numbers have human faces. There’s 11.4 million stories,” said Rev. Norman Wilson, Senior Pastor at Freedom Hall Church of the Living God in Orlando, FL and a leader with PICO National Network.

The audio from today’s call is available here.


add a comment »