Death Penalty Divides Religious Community

Nov 16, 2002 03:00 AM EST

The future of capital punishment is under close scrutiny, given state moratoriums on death sentences; high-profile death penalty cases; and DNA evidence that may exonerate some prisoners facing death.

On Thursday evening, Virginia is scheduled to execute a Pakistani man, Mir Aimal Kasi, for a 1993 shooting at the entrance to the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters that killed two employees. Kasi opened fire on people as they sat in their cars, waiting to turn left into the CIA complex.

Most Americans consider capital punishment an appropriate consequence for crimes such as Kasi's.

According to a Gallup Poll released on October 29, 2002, 70 percent of Americans say they support the death penalty for convicted murderers. But death penalty opponents are quick to point out that 70 percent is less than the 72 percent who said they supported the death penalty back in May and the 80 percent who supported it in a 1994 survey.

Among religious groups, however, there is less consensus on the death penalty, as different religions and internal factions find themselves at odds on interpretation of scripture and the need for a death penalty.

The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, passed a 2000 resolution supporting capital punishment, based on its historic use by religious figures and in biblical lore.

And the Rabbinical Council of America supports it as well. "While we abhor the taking of any life, there are certain cases where life should be taken for the heinous crimes that have been perpetrated," said Executive Vice President Steven Dworken.

Pope John Paul II has led the Catholic Church down the path of opposing capital punishment with a revised catechism that does not condemn the death penalty when "it is the only practical way to efficiently defend the lives of human beings from the unjust aggressor." However, the Catholic Church asserts the need for capital punishment today is "very rare, if not practically non-existent" because states have other means to "repress crime efficiently and render [criminals] inoffensive."

Similarly, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America favors a death penalty moratorium. "One of Judaism's great teachings to the world is an appreciation for the infinite value of human life," Congregation public policy director Nathan Diament explained in a June 2001 forum.

But, Diament continued, the Congregation is not about to take the position of abolishing the death penalty, because of Jewish teaching that calls for "implementing justice for society."

A cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Joseph Lowery, is seeking abolition of the death penalty, primarily due to concerns of inequity in how such punishment is meted out by the legal system-that it befalls black and poor defendants more frequently.

The Catholic League's Louis Giovino highlighted the fact that the issue causes discord within the Catholic faith.

Liberal Catholics "accuse conservatives of saying you're for [life] except [for] the death penalty," said Giovino. But "the difference is abortion is objectively evil according to Catholic teaching, which means it's always wrong, no matter when, no matter what. That's not the case with capital punishment."

However, when it comes to budging public opinion away from supporting capital punishment, David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has observed that religion is not the most effective way to change people's minds.

"It ends up being the innocence argument" that persuades most people, said Elliot, referring to the 102 people who have been freed from death row because they are later found to be innocent. "Americans cannot tolerate the idea of a person being wrongly incarcerated, much less wrongly executed," he explained.

"The religious message will work with some people," Elliot concluded, but for many people that just doesn't work, he said.

By Christine Hall