A small Lutheran Christian congregation in California has thrown its support behind a pending bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in that state. It has been commonly known as the "right-to-die" bill.
According to Pauline Bartolone of Capital Public Radio, Pastor Vernon Holmes leads that small Lutheran congregation in Carmichael that was in favor of the controversial practice. He argued that while his religion vouches for quality of life, it also challenged the status quo.
"There are things in life that are worse than death," Holmes said.
Bartolone reported that Holmes' church is part of a state organization called California Church Impact, a group that has come out to support SB 128, California's physician-assisted suicide bill. Holmes formed his views on the controversial topic after observing and talking to the people he dealt with through a hospice program in San Joaquin County.
"When that's no longer possible, and they feel that their life has come to a point of closure, and they are in the process of dying, to have some say in that process, seems to be the more just approach," Holmes said, adding that his faith was about supporting people to live free and productive lives.
According to Bartolone, Holmes believed that death is an individual decision that should not be dictated by either the state or the church. Parishioner Peggy Rheault, 76, agreed with that sentiment.
"I don't think Jesus would want us to suffer," Rheault said. "I think He would agree with us. To me, it's not suicide, it's help."
The position taken by Holmes appears to have some support in the Lutheran sect of Christianity. According to the Death with Dignity National Center, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ECLA) does allow "physician-assisted death," but thoroughly opposes euthanasia since "deliberately destroying life created in the image of God is contrary to our Christian conscience."
"Health care professionals are not required to use all available medical treatment in all circumstances," ECLA said in a 1992 statement. "Medical treatment may be limited in some instances, and death allowed to occur."
However, the Missouri Synod sect of the Lutheran Church took a harder line on both euthanasia and assisted suicide, particularly on the moral argument that physician-assisted death could be a compassionate act to relieve human suffering.
"In light of what the Scriptures say about the kind of care God wills that we provide to those who suffer and are facing death, we reject such claims as neither compassionate nor caring," Missouri Synod said. "Christians aim always to care, never to kill."
Sociologist John Evans of the University of California at San Diego told Bartolone that he wasn't surprised that some Christians supported the "right-to-die" policy.
"The first people before the Roe V. Wade decision, who were smuggling women to other cities for safe but illegal abortion, were Christian clergy members," Evans said.
Despite the fact that Christian beliefs can vary by region and how one interprets the Bible, Evans argued that there is some agreement when it came to end-of-life decisions.
"Most of these traditions wouldn't say you should keep trying to save someone's life if they are going to die," Evans said. "The distinction is in actively bringing about your own death vs. allowing to die."
However, Ned Dolejsi of the California Catholic Conference disagreed with Evan's assertion. He told Bartolone that suffering is a part of life under Catholic traditions.
"We are not autonomous," Dolejsi said. "We certainly have a certain responsible autonomy as we exercise as our unique nature as a human person, but we do that, we are a social being, we are in a network of relationships and community, so we're always concerned about the common good."
Dolejsi blamed bad medical care as a reason of why some people felt in pain as they were dying.
"That's what we should be addressing in society," Dolejsi said. "Not saying oh, because there is this pain, that we have to allow someone to separate themselves from the rest of us, and take their own life. We should be focused on making sure no one dies in pain, and no one dies alone."
According to California Church Impact's website, the organization represents 1.5 million members "within the mainstream, progressive Protestant faith." The group primarily focuses on issues related to human services, human rights, economic justice and transparency in the legal and electoral process.