Clergy Unite, Urging Followers To Oppose the Death Penalty

Religious leaders in California gather today to plan 'pulpit activism' against executions.

Across America, there is near consensus in favor of the death penalty. Executions are rising, the public is strongly supportive, and in this election season, any partisan difference over the need for capital punishment is rare indeed.

For Ned Doleysi, a religious leader and death-penalty opponent, all that makes this the perfect "teachable moment." Mr. Doleysi, director of the California Catholic Conference, and a large slice of this state's religious community are joining forces this week with a budding national movement to reverse the pro-death-penalty tide.

Many mainstream religions have for years opposed capital punishment, but this new effort is about changing the minds of followers through sermons and Sunday school lessons.

Some 150 religious leaders from various faiths and regions of California will meet here starting today to develop an agenda of pulpit activism against execution. For those opposed to capital punishment, California's involvement is a major step in building critical mass for a movement that clearly faces an uphill task.

Since the United States Supreme Court declared execution constitutional under certain conditions in 1976, more than 450 convicted criminals have been put to death in the 38 states that have the death penalty. Poll numbers show strong majority support for capital punishment. In California, for instance, 74 percent favored it in the most recent poll.

Strong backing of the death penalty is an offspring, in part, of public alarm about rising crime in the 1970s and '80s.

Yet with crime rates now dropping, opponents hope public attitudes will soften. They also believe controversial executions like that of Karla Faye Tucker in Texas earlier this year have given many staunch supporters pause.

"Even Pat Robertson and others of the Christian conservative movements had strong objections to [Tucker's] execution" because of her rehabilitation in prison, says Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, which opposes capital punishment.

The American Friends Service Committee, founded by Quakers, rallied religious institutions against the death penalty at a Washington conference last year.

Religious leaders in several states have followed suit, gathering support and developing tactics for starting discussions about the death penalty in their synagogues and congregations.

"I think there is finally some real momentum," says Pat Clark of the American Friends Service Committee.

"We're getting requests from churches on how to prepare a sermon on this issue, or a Sunday school curriculum that will allow for real dialogue on the death penalty."

ONE tool to help sway opinion is the advocacy of life imprisonment without possibility of parole as an alternative to the death penalty. Religious leaders gathering here agreed in advance to a "statement of conscience" that encourages educating religious communities about that option.

That's unpersuasive, though, to many death-penalty supporters. "As long as there are people governing the state that can change sentences and alter what the jury or the judge chose, there can't be any guarantees" that violent offenders won't eventually get out of prison, says Susan Fisher of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau in Sacramento, Calif. "There are some things people do for which they should forfeit their lives," says Ms. Fisher, whose brother was murdered.

For many of the leaders gathering here, opposition to the death penalty is rooted in basic teachings. But convincing adherents that those teachings should be put into practice is the difficult part.

"There is this huge moral divide between what the faith community has in its basic teachings and the belief systems of its people," says George Regas, rector emeritus of the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif. "That's what this is about, trying to address that fundamental division."

Opposition to the death penalty, says Rabbi Leonard Beerman of the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, "is rooted in the sacredness of being human." Aside from being wrong, execution "creates the illusion of solving a problem." That problem - protection from criminals - can be accomplished without execution, he says.

For many death-penalty critics, the rise in use of execution is just a political expedient to satisfy the public's demand for safer streets.

"It's clear to us that the death penalty has become purely a political tool. It has nothing to do with deterring crime, and the political establishment of our society is gearing up to have frequent and regular executions" in California, says Lance Lindsey of Death Penalty Focus of California, a prime sponsor of this week's conference.

He points out that California now has more than 500 inmates on death row, the most in the nation, and a dozen of them are scheduled to be executed in 1999.

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