TAKE ACTION: Are you an Ohio clergy person? If so please sign this death penalty reform letter from Ohioans to Stop Executions: www.otse.org/faith-leader-initiative
By JoAnne Viviano, The Columbus Dispatch • Tuesday April 5, 2016 5:48 AM
When the Rev. Richard Burnett was ordained in the 1980s, there was a big gap between what he preached from the pulpit in opposition to the death penalty and what people felt in the pews.
Over the past 25 years or so, he’s seen that gap shrink.
“I find a lot of people in the congregations who are really concerned,” said Burnett, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church Downtown. “I’m for abolition, but even people who just want a moratorium are finding that there’s more and more support, on a moral and on a practical basis.”
Burnett is one of about 325 faith leaders who have signed a letter on the issue that will be given to state lawmakers next Tuesday, when Ohioans to Stop Executions will hold a legislative lobby day at the Statehouse.
The letter, part of OTSE’s Faith Leader Initiative, notes that some signers are unopposed to capital punishment and others seek to abolish it.
It calls on the General Assembly to act on recommendations made by an Ohio Supreme Court task force that reviewed administration of the death penalty. Among the dozens of recommendations: banning the execution of mentally ill people; requiring DNA evidence or a videotaped confession when the inmate might face the death penalty; reserving the death penalty for those who commit the worst crimes; and creating a fund to help pay for the defense of someone in a death-penalty case.
“All of us want our society protected and dangerous criminals held accountable, but not in a way that treats offenders and victims differently based on skin color, geographic location of a crime, or in a way which does not consider mental culpability. We cannot accept the possibility of executing an innocent person,” says the letter.
“The Scriptures and sacred texts of all our faiths demand fairness, accuracy and mercy at a threshold far higher than the law currently prescribes. There is no question in any of our minds that if Ohio is to continue to have a death penalty, it must be administered fairly.”
Though the letter is signed by a number of Jewish leaders, OTSE offers a separate letter that speaks to the Jewish faith and calls for banning the death penalty.
Cantor Jack Chomsky of Congregation Tifereth Israel on the Near East Side said he’s pleased to see more Jewish clergy members engaging in the initiative and the effort to end capital punishment.
“Although capital punishment is outside actual historic Jewish practice, it is sometimes hard to fight this fight, because of the feeling that the goal is out of reach,” Chomsky said. “The involvement of more Jewish clergy is, hopefully, a reflection of greater hope and a feeling that the goal is more within reach than ever before.”
Clergy members have the ears of hundreds of thousands of people each week and, as community leaders, can speak to legislators for their congregations, said OTSE’s Abraham Bonowitz. Many major faiths stand against capital punishment, he said, and the OTSE Faith Leaders Initiative webpage offers ways in which clergy can advocate for, preach about and pray over that position.
The Ohio Council of Churches has long opposed the death penalty, said the Rev. Rebecca Tollefson, a Presbyterian minister who serves as executive director for the counil.
She cited racial and mental-health injustices in implementing the penalty, the costs to execute an inmate and the lack of comfort that capital punishment tends to give victims. She encouraged other religious leaders to participate in lobby day next Tuesday.
“It’s important for people of faith to express to their legislators why it’s important to them,” she said. “And I wish more people of faith would do that. We just aren’t good at turning up to talk to our legislators.”
Jim Tobin, of the Catholic Conference of Ohio’s social-concerns department, said that each year a few more state legislators agree that there is no need for the death penalty.
“It’s a long journey. We don’t know how long,” he said. “It’s a hard issue. We try not to be cavalier. What these people have done is not defensible. The question is, ‘As a society, what is our best response?’ And the death penalty is not our best response.”
Burnett considers the death penalty a “gateway issue” that can inform social policy on other issues, such as gun violence, the Black Lives Matter movement and regard for the poor.
“It’s also a gateway issue for spiritual maturity,” he added. “It opens up a lot of questions about compassion, and not just pity, not just sympathy, but real compassion.”
To learn more about the initiative, go to www.otse.org/faith-leader-initiative.