DOVER — Delaware religious leaders came together Wednesday in what one termed an “unprecedented” gathering to oppose the death penalty.
Men representing the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, United Church of Christ and Jewish faiths gathered in Legislative Hall for a news conference to denounce capital punishment and urge legislators to give a repeal bill serious consideration. The four speakers were also representing the Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist and Presbyterian churches, whose leaders could not be present.
Although some religious figures previously had spoken out against the death penalty, higher-ups had never before in Delaware met to publicly take a stance on an issue, Bishop Wayne Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware said.
The four leaders are following on the heels of a public pronouncement by Pope Francis, who called for the abolition of the penalty in October. In March, when Senate Bill 40 was introduced, several religious leaders in the state sent letters to lawmakers calling for them to support the proposal. An attached list of reverends, rabbis and others backing the bill contains more than 100 names.
“The issue of capital punishment is a morally complex one because of the apparent conflicting demands of justice and the preservation of human life. Yet the gospel message is forever one of forgiveness, reconciliation, rehabilitation and charity to all, never with exception,” Bishop Francis Malooly of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington said.
“There are many threats to human life, and at times life is treated cheaply. We see that often today. However, every life is a gift from God, and God alone is the master of both life and death.”
A joint written statement from the religious heads argued the death penalty is not a deterrent and is applied more often on minorities, something echoed by the speakers Wednesday.
“I do not believe, from data, from what we’ve read and learned, that the death penalty makes our state a safer place, a better place or a more just community,” Bishop Wright.
The Rev. David Popham with the United Church of Christ Central Atlantic Conference questioned if capital punishment provides justice or revenge, while Rabbi Yair Robinson with the Jewish Clergy of Delaware said he believes it does not provide peace.
The speakers focused mostly on capital punishment from a religious perspective.
The 2,000-year-old Talmud questions the integrity of capital punishment, Rabbi Robinson said, and Bishop Malooly cited the teachings of Jesus in proclaiming his belief every life is precious.
The goal, the speakers said, is not necessarily to convince lawmakers to vote for the abolition of the death penalty but to at least give the bill a chance.
Lawmakers backing the bill are very skeptical it will advance through the House Judiciary Committee. Its passage is strongly opposed by police and correctional officers.
All four men agreed there is a consensus for repeal among their congregations.
They planned to meet with Gov. Jack Markell afterward. The governor has not taken a position on the issue.
The church leaders are unsure as to Senate Bill 40’s exact prospects but remain hopeful their announcement will give the legislation momentum.
“It deserves a full hearing by the House,” Rabbi Robinson said. “It deserves to be heard and debated vigorously by committee but then to be released to the full Legislature for debate as it was debated fully in the Senate.”