death penalty

Think about this strange debate in Alabama: Why does God need to see public records?

Think about this strange debate in Alabama: Why does God need to see public records?

It’s one of the mantras I recite every now and then when describing journalism trends in this troubled age: Opinion is cheap, while information is expensive.

Week after week, readers send us the URLs to opinion pieces and op-ed essays about subjects that, in a previous age, might have received serious news coverage that explored the views of people on both sides of these arguments and standoffs.

This does not mean that these pieces are not important or that they don’t contain valid information about important news stories.

That’s certainly the case with this “opinion column” that was published recently by the Alabama Media Group — AL.com — with this headline: “Why does God need public records? In Alabama, that’s a real question.” The author is political columnist Kyle Whitmire.

The overture is somewhat confusing, but that’s sort of the point. What we have here is a case that involves press freedom, religious freedom, the death penalty and who knows what all. It’s a bit of a mystery.

Why in the name of God would anyone need a public record?

After all, doesn’t the Almighty already know what those documents show?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. For Tabitha Isner, they were real, asked of her by a lawyer for the Alabama prison system. And she had to answer under oath.

Swear to God.

Or, if you care about transparency and accountability in government, just swear.

Like the Holy Bible, maybe we should start in the beginning.

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SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

To cut to the chase: I have just returned from a long eye exam (things are OK) and focusing on a computer screen is not going to be easy for several hours.

So let’s make this a quick post. OK?

What we have here is your basic Washington Post law-and-politics story, one running under the headline: “Last-minute execution decisions expose wide and bitter rift at Supreme Court.”

The death penalty is, of course, a hot-button issue linked to debates involving religion and morality, as well as political and legal realities. Here is the opening of this report:

The Supreme Court meets in private to decide last-minute pleas from death-row inmates to stop their executions, and what happens behind the maroon velvet curtains often stays behind the maroon velvet curtains.

But that changed Monday, with justices issuing a flurry of explanations and recriminations on cases decided weeks ago. The writings named names and exposed a bitter rift among members of the court on one of the most emotional and irreversible decisions they make.

Decisions on last-minute stays usually come with only a minimum of reasoning. But three justices issued a set-the-record-straight opinion that took aim at one of Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissents from a month ago. Breyer had said that the court’s conservatives deviated from “basic principles of fairness” in refusing to take more time to consider the plea of an Alabama murderer, Christopher Lee Price, who had asked to be executed by inhaling nitrogen gas rather than risk a “botched” lethal injection.

“There is nothing of substance to these assertions,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch. They said that Breyer’s reasoning, which was joined by the court’s three other liberals, “does not withstand even minimal legal scrutiny.”

Now, since my eyes are under the weather, let’s let GetReligion readers look through this story through a media-criticism lens.

This story contains a lot of religion, since the court cases here involve Buddhist and Muslim prisoners and their First Amendment rights. Think religious liberty issues, without the “scare quotes.”

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Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

It was the kind of outrageous story that grabbed the attention of GetReligion readers, as well as old-school First Amendment liberals who care deeply about protecting religious liberty.

Plenty of journalists saw the importance of this story last week, which tends to happen when a dispute ends up at the U.S. Supreme Court and creates a sharp 5-4 split among the justices.

The question, in this case, was whether journalists grasped some of the most symbolic, painful details in this execution case in Alabama. I looked at several stories and this USA Today report — “Alabama executes Muslim inmate Domineque Ray who asked for imam to be present“ — was better than the mainstream norm. Here is the overture:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama death row inmate Domineque Ray died by lethal injection Thursday evening with his imam present in an adjoining chamber. …

Ray was executed after an 11th-hour ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of execution pending a religious rights claim. Ray, a Muslim, had argued Alabama's practice of including a Christian prison chaplain in the execution chamber was in violation of the First Amendment. Ray sought to have his imam present in the death chamber at the time of his death.

Imam Yusef Maisonet, Ray's spiritual adviser, witnessed Ray's execution from a chamber which held media and prison officials. Two lawyers accompanied Maisonet.

When the curtain opened at 9:44 p.m., Ray lifted his head from the gurney, looking into the witness room. With his right hand in a fist, he extended a pointer finger.

Maisonet appeared to mirror the gesture and murmured that it was an acknowledgement of the singular God of the Islamic faith. When asked if he had any final words, Ray gave a brief faith declaration in Arabic.

OK, I will ask: What did Ray say, in Arabic? Did he speak Arabic? If not, then the odds are very good that Ray’s final words were a memorized quote from the Koran. It would have been good to have known the specifics.

That’s an important missing detail, but not the key to this story. The big issue, in this case, was that Ray was executed without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side. USA Today managed to get that detail — along with the crucial fact that state policy only allowed a Christian chaplain in the execution room — at the top of this report. That’s where those facts belonged.

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Time for a big think on Catholicism’s moral authority and culture of dissent  

Time for a big think on Catholicism’s moral authority and culture of dissent  

That didn’t take long.

On August 2, the Vatican’s doctrine office announced that Pope Francis ordered a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to proclaim that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”  

On August 15, 45 Catholic conservatives joined in a bold public appeal to all members of the College of Cardinals, beseeching them to convince Francis to “withdraw” the teaching and end “this gravely scandalous situation.” In ensuing days, dozens added their endorsements by e-mailing appealtocardinals@gmail.com.

The dramatic rebuke of the pope’s teaching occurred one fortnight after the 50th anniversary date of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical defining birth control as immoral (apart from the natural or “rhythm” method), which sparked  far broader dissent worldwide.  

Reporters will observe that liberals contend the birth-control decree undermined the church’s moral authority because so many lay parishioners could not agree -- and still do not. Conservatives argue that maintaining traditional teaching is necessary to uphold the church’s moral credibility. Another angle here is that opposition to executions has hardened partly due to Catholicism's "pro-life" concerns over abortion and mercy-killing. 

There’s been similar conservative angst over Francis’ ambiguous suggestion of openness toward communion for divorced Catholics in second marriages. 

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Doing some thinking, with the Catholic left, about Pope Francis, death penalty and LGBTQ future

Doing some thinking, with the Catholic left, about Pope Francis, death penalty and LGBTQ future

One of the ways that journalists can tell a Pope Francis controversy has legs is when it quickly becomes clear that conservative Catholics and liberal Catholics are offering very similar readings of the same text.

The difference, of course, is that Catholics on the doctrinal left are excited about the text and many on the doctrinal right are worried.

In this case, I am talking -- of course -- about the pope's "evolution of doctrine" statement on the death penalty. (In candor, let me again note once again that I am totally opposed to the death penalty, with no exceptions.) As a refresher, let's listen to the gospel according to The New York Times:

... Francis said executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are “an attack” on human dignity, the Vatican announced on Thursday, adding that the church would work “with determination” to abolish capital punishment worldwide.

Francis made the change to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the book of doctrine that is taught to Catholic children worldwide and studied by adults in a church with 1.2 billion members. Abolishing the death penalty has long been one of his top priorities, along with saving the environment and caring for immigrants and refugees. ...

The pope’s decree is likely to hit hardest in the United States, where a majority of Catholics support the death penalty and the powerful “pro-life movement” has focused almost exclusively on ending abortion -- not the death penalty.

Kudos for the restraint shown in avoiding a reference to "the so-called 'pro-life' movement."

 Now, in my post with this week's podcast -- "So how much do you trust Pope Francis? Here's why death penalty debate is heating up" -- I quoted the following reference from an email to Rod Dreher from a Catholic reader, referring to this "evolution of doctrine" debate:

From the Catholic Catechism of 2030:

“Sexual relations between persons of the same sex were long considered to be intrinsically disordered acts.

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost when a person engages in same-sex relations. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the meaning of human sexuality.

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So how much do you trust Pope Francis? Here's why death penalty debate is heating up

So how much do you trust Pope Francis? Here's why death penalty debate is heating up

St. Pope John Paul II condemned the death penalty and urged government leaders to end it. 

Pope Benedict XVI did the same, in language just as strong as that used by his beloved predecessor.

Now Pope Francis has gone one step further, saying that the church can now say that the faith of the ages has evolved, allowing the Catholic Catechism to condemn the death penalty in strong, but somewhat unusual language. Is use of the death penalty now a mortal sin, like abortion and euthanasia? Well, the word is that it is "inadmissible."

This is, of course, a major news story and, no surprise, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the early press coverage in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

But what does this change really mean?

Did Pope Francis simply take the work of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI one step further? Thus, Catholic traditionalists can chill. 

Or is this an example of Pope Francis the progressive, moving one piece on the Jesuit chessboard to prepare for further shifts in the future on other doctrines? If the church was wrong on the death penalty for 2,000 years, who knows what doctrine will evolve next?

So, is this doctrinal shift a big deal or not? 

It appears, after looking at lots of commentary on social media, that the answer to that question depends on whether someone trusts Pope Francis or not. 

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Friday Five: RNS council, execution witness, McCarrick scandal, gamer pastor and more

Friday Five: RNS council, execution witness, McCarrick scandal, gamer pastor and more

GetReligion has covered the various happenings at Religion News Service since the firing of former editor in chief Jerome Socolovsky (now with NPR) and the resignations of other key staff and columnists.

This week brought another development for RNS — the appointment of a 19-person advisory council for the news service.

See the full list of members here.

Tell us what you think!

(Full disclosure: I do freelance reporting for RNS in addition to my full-time work with The Christian Chronicle.)

Now, let's dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: While working for The Oklahoman nearly two decades ago, I witnessed four executions. Still, I can't even imagine what Associated Press writer Michael Graczyk has done — serving as a media witness for 429 inmate deaths. 

If you missed it, news coverage of the retirement of Graczyk, a practicing Catholic, is worth your time.

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Time to play 'Name That Newsroom,' as Pope Francis defends old doctrines on gender

Time to play 'Name That Newsroom,' as Pope Francis defends old doctrines on gender

That Pope Francis is certainly a headline maker.

Consider, for example, the current news mini-explosion about his proclamation that the death penalty is "contrary to the Gospel."

That's news and there's no doubt about it. In this case, a few -- but not all -- journalists covering the story quickly grasped that this statement had something to do with a highly troubling religious word, as in "doctrine." After all, there is this passage in the current edition of the Catholic Catechism:

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

Now, this is not the normal kind of controversy that surrounds Pope Francis, when it comes to news coverage.

Most of the time, as your GetReligionistas have noted many times, what is interesting is to notice the degree to which some of the pope's comments make major news and some do not. You know, like the fact that there are, at the moment, almost a half million Google hits when you search for the phrase "Who am I to judge?"

With that in mind, let's play a little news game linked to the papacy. No, we're not going to play "Name that Pope," comparing quotations from Pope Francis with similar statements from Pope Benedict XVI.

No, this time we are going to play, "Name that Newsroom."

The goal is to figure out which of the following recent headlines and overtures is from a mainstream news magazine and which is from one of the top publications serving the niche-news needs of the LGBTQ community. The hook for these reports is the latest Pope Francis statement defending church teachings on gender.

Ready. Let's start with this headline:

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Florida conservatives fighting the death penalty? More balance and context would help that narrative

Florida conservatives fighting the death penalty? More balance and context would help that narrative

As a state reporter for The Oklahoman, I witnessed four executions in Oklahoma. Later, while working for The Associated Press, I interviewed a Tennessee mass murderer behind bars and was on the witness list for his scheduled execution. However, it got called off at the last minute. 

Over the last year, I've written freelances pieces on capital punishment for Agence France-Presse and Religion News Service.

Given my experience with the subject, I'm definitely drawn to news reports on the death penalty. A headline that caught my attention today: 

New conservative group wants death penalty repealed

The story is in the Orlando Sentinel and relates to a Florida group that has formed:

A group of Florida conservatives is joining a national organization in the fight to abolish the death penalty, saying it is too “costly, cumbersome and error-prone” and violates conservative values, such as the sanctity of life.
Florida Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said Wednesday other punishments such as life in prison are more fiscally responsible. Studies have shown the death penalty, with its years of appeals, is more costly.
“The death penalty is one of the most expensive boondoggles that has ever been forced upon the taxpayers,” said Republican James Purdy, public defender of the 7th Judicial Court, which includes Volusia, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties.
The group announced its formation outside the Orange County Courthouse, the same spot where Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, a Democrat, said earlier this year she wouldn’t be seeking the death penalty during her term, laying out many of the same arguments her conservative counterparts did.
Ayala’s decision sparked outrage in conservative circles and caused Republican Gov. Rick Scott to strip her of more than 20 death penalty cases.

OK, how many references to "conservative" or "conservatives" did you count in those first five paragraphs? I believe "five" is the right answer. But still, I have no idea whether we're talking about fiscal conservatives or social conservatives or some combination.

Keep reading, and the story remains rather vague. Specifically, who are these anti-death-penalty conservatives? What exact issues characterize them as, you know, conservatives?

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