Faith groups, law enforcement jump into death penalty debate


Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska voters can expect to hear a lot about the death penalty this summer from influential people in their communities, from their local church pastor to the county sheriff.

Faith groups and law enforcement are jumping into the debate as petition circulators try to gather enough signatures to place the issue on the 2016 general election ballot.

Law enforcement groups have generally supported the punishment each year when Nebraska lawmakers considered repealing it, while religious groups spoke against the death penalty.

Both sides are now turning their attention to the public after the Legislature voted last month to abolish capital punishment, overcoming Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto. Nebraska became the first typically conservative state to end the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973.

Some lawmakers said they opposed the punishment for moral or religious reasons, while others argued it was too expensive and will never likely be carried out because of legal appeals. Shortly after the vote, death penalty supporters launched a petition drive to keep the death penalty.

On Friday, the ACLU of Nebraska said it had received a $400,000 donation from Proteus Action League, a group based in Amherst, Mass., that has spent millions on campaigns to abolish the death penalty. The money will go to Nebraskans for Public Safety, a coalition that is urging voters not to sign the petitions.

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, a group with ties to Ricketts, has to gather roughly 57,000 signatures of registered voters by Aug. 27 to place the law on the ballot. The signatures must come from at least 5 percent of the registered voters in 38 of Nebraska’s 93 counties.

Faith leaders said they plan to discuss their church’s position on capital punishment in sermons, homilies and bulletins. Leaders from Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, evangelical and Episcopalian churches in Nebraska have all voiced concerns about the death penalty.

Earlier this month, the Catholic Church’s Archbishop of Omaha published a newsletter column saying church leaders were exercising their responsibility to teach their faith.

“At the very least, each of the bishops will continue to communicate with Catholics about why they support the repeal,” said Greg Schleppenbach, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference.

Schleppenbach said he believes many Catholics will want to learn more about the church’s position as the signature campaign continues.

The church doesn’t teach that the death penalty is immoral but says it should only be used in rare circumstances when the state has no other way to protect society from violent offenders. Schleppenbach said life sentences are sufficient to keep the public safe.

The Rev. Lauren Ekdahl, minister at First United Methodist Church in Gering, said he expects the religious community will continue making public statements in favor of the repeal. Ekdahl has advocated against the death penalty for years, arguing it’s a sin that punishes one death with another.

“I do expect them to think about it, to pray about it, and ponder what the implications are for society,” Ekdahl said. “We rationalize and try to sanitize the death penalty in the way it’s applied, but murder is murder in God’s eyes and my eyes as well.”

Some county sheriffs plan to speak publicly to their constituents in favor of the referendum campaign, possibly at county fairs and other summer community events. The Nebraska Sheriffs’ Association voted unanimously to support the petition drive shortly after it was launched, said Grant County Sheriff Shawn Hebbert, the group’s president.

Hebbert said that although he and most sheriffs support the death penalty, the group plans to focus on giving Nebraskans the right to vote on the issue rather than the punishment itself.

“If we win, we win. If we lose, we lose,” he said. “But it should at least be a vote of the people that decides it.”

Omaha Police Sgt. John Wells, the president of the Omaha Police Officers Association, said his group donated $10,000 to the referendum campaign. Wells said the group’s members could help with the signature gathering campaign after the College World Series of Omaha, one of the busiest times of year for police.

“Certainly we’re willing to help if they’re looking for volunteers,” he said.

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