Tag Archives: United States

Shifts seen in support for death penalty

Electric chair

Electric chair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By KEVIN JOHNSON
c. 2012 USA Today
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) The campaign to abolish the death penalty has been freshly invigorated this month in a series of actions that supporters say represents increasing evidence that America may be losing its taste for capital punishment.

As early as this week, Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, is poised to sign

a bill repealing the death penalty in Connecticut. A separate proposal

The Gas Chamber at New Mexico Penitentiary, Sa...

The Gas Chamber at New Mexico Penitentiary, Santa Fe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

has qualified for the November ballot in California that would shut down the largest death row in the country and convert inmates’ sentences to life without parole.

Academics, too, have recently taken indirect aim: The National Research Council concluded last week that there have been no reliable studies to show that capital punishment is a deterrent to homicide.

That study, which does not take a position on capital punishment, follows a Gallup Poll last fall that found support for the death penalty had slipped to 61 percent nationally, the lowest level in 39 years.

Even in Texas, which has long projected the harshest face of the U.S. criminal justice system, there has been a marked shift. Last year, the state’s 13 executions marked the lowest number in 15 years. And this year, the state — the perennial national leader in executions — is scheduled to carry out just 10.

Capital punishment proponents say the general decline in death sentences and executions in recent years is merely a reflection of the sustained drop in violent crime, but some lawmakers and legal analysts say the numbers underscore a growing wariness of wrongful convictions.

In Texas, Dallas County alone has uncovered 30 wrongful convictions since 2001, the most of any county in the country. Former Texas Gov. Mark White, a Democrat, said he continues to support the death penalty “only in a select number of cases,” yet he says he believes that a “national reassessment” is now warranted given the stream of recent exonerations.

“I have been a proponent of the death penalty, but convicting people who didn’t commit the crime has to stop,” White said.

“There is an inherent unfairness in the system,” said former Los Angeles County district attorney Gil Garcetti, a Democrat. He added that he was “especially troubled” by mounting numbers of wrongful convictions.

A recent convert to the California anti-death-penalty campaign, Garcetti said the current system has become “obscenely expensive” and forces victims to often wait years for death row appeals to run their course. In the past 34 years in California, just 13 people have been executed as part of a system that costs $184 million per year to maintain.

“Replacing capital punishment will give victims legal finality,” Garcetti said.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, said California’s referendum marks a potentially “historic” moment in the anti-death-penalty movement in a state that houses 22 percent of the nation’s death row prisoners.

“Repeal in California would be a huge development,” Dieter said. “Just getting it on the ballot is big.”

Nationally, Dieter said, fading arguments for capital punishment as a deterrent to homicide and mounting numbers of wrongful convictions are “turning a corner” in the debate.

Democratic state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, a sponsor of the bill to repeal Connecticut’s death penalty, said capital punishment’s “promise to victims and taxpayers is hollow.” In Connecticut, only one person has been executed in the past 52 years.

Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said the country’s system of capital punishment is in need of change, but not elimination. He said there is “strong motivation,” though, to fix a system that can take 20 years for offenders to reach the death chamber following conviction.

“The vast majority of states (33, not counting Connecticut) still have the possibility of the death penalty,” Burns said.

“I don’t see a blowing wind that will dramatically change that,” he added.

(Kevin Johnson writes for USA Today.)

First person: Breaking the chains of religious tradition

By FRAIDY REISS
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) Where I come from, girls are married off as teenagers to men they barely know and are expected to spend their lives caring for their husband and children. They are required to cover their hair and nearly every inch of their skin, and to remain behind a curtain at parties and religious events.

Where I come from, if a woman wants to feel her hair blow in the wind or wear jeans or attend college, the courts have the authority to take her children away from her.

Where I come from, you might be surprised to learn, is the United States. Specifically, New York and then New Jersey, in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Recently, two women have brought national attention to the fact that Orthodox Jewish women who leave that insular community risk losing custody of their children: Deborah Feldman of New York, whose memoir about her escape from the Satmar Hasidic sect hit The New York Times best-seller list; and Perry Reich of New Jersey, whose custody battle — which includes accusations from her husband that she sometimes wears pants — earned her an appearance last month on the “Dr. Phil” television show.

My story is similar to theirs. When I was 19, my family arranged for me to marry a man who turned out to be violent. With no education and no job, and a family that refused to help me, I was stuck. By age 20, I was a trapped, abused, stay-at-home mother.

Ten years later, still trapped and unhappy, I finally took what became one of my first steps away from Orthodox Judaism: I stopped wearing a head covering.

The consequences were swift and severe. My family cut off contact with me; one of my five siblings kept in touch long enough to inform me the others were contemplating sitting shiva for me, or mourning as if I had died.

Perhaps most shockingly, several rabbis informed me I should say goodbye to my children because I was going to lose custody of them during my looming divorce proceeding.

They were not bluffing. Numerous family attorneys unaffiliated with any religion advised me to stop publicly flouting Orthodox laws and customs.

As the attorneys noted, and as illustrated by Feldman’s and Reich’s experiences, judges look at religion as one factor in a custody dispute and generally view stability to be in the children’s best interests.

They have been known to award custody to the parent who will continue to raise the children in the same religion as before the family breakup.

Where I come from — that means here in the United States, in 2012 — women fear, legitimately, that they might lose their children if they lose their religion.

Feldman and I each managed to settle and avoid divorce trials, and each of us retained custody of our children. Others have not been as lucky. Reich, for example, remains mired in her custody battle.

Fear in the religious community, therefore, persists. I recently started a nonprofit organization, Unchained At Last, to help women leave arranged marriages, and the most common inquiry I receive is from Orthodox Jewish women who want to leave the religion and are willing to accept ostracism from their family and friends, but are terrified that a judge might remove their children.

For many, their situation seems especially hopeless because they, like Reich, felt pressured to allow a beit din (an Orthodox Jewish court) arbitrate their divorce.

The beit din’s binding decisions and agreements routinely include a provision that the children will be raised within Orthodox Judaism.

Secular courts generally enforce those decisions and agreements, even if a mother later realizes she does not want to raise her children in a religion where men bless God every morning for not making them a non-Jew, a slave or a woman.

Where I come from — the United States — the First Amendment is supposed to empower people to choose whether and how to practice religion, without interference from secular courts. What went wrong?

(Fraidy Reiss is the founder/executive director of Unchained At Last. She lives in Westfield, N.J. A version of this commentary first appeared in The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)

BRIEF: Two locations scheduled for National Day of Prayer next week

Prayer Mormon

Boy praying (Photo credit: More Good Foundation and Wikipedia)

The Wilmington citywide observance of The National Day of Prayer will be in two locations at noon on May 3: in downtown Wilmington in the courtyard beside the Main County Library on the corner of Third and Chestnut street, and the second location is Hugh MacRae Park on South College Rd. Each observance will include music and prayer and will last until approximately 1 p.m. There will be prayer for national leaders, local leaders, communities, military, families and many more topics. There will also be opportunities for attendees to pray.

Details: contact Dale Miller at 910-763-2452.

– Amanda Greene

Poll shows Christianity good for the poor, bad for sex

By ANNALISA MUSARRA
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS)Americans feel the “Christian faith” has a positive

Sex & Religion

Sex & Religion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

impact on help for the poor and raising children with good morals, according to a new poll, but it gets a bad rap on its impact on sexuality in society.

In a new study conducted by Grey Matter Research, more than 1,000 American adults were asked if the Christian faith had a positive, negative, or no real impact on 16 different areas of society, such as crime, poverty and the role of women in society.

Strong majorities (72 percent) said Christianity is good for helping the poor and for raising children with good morals. Around half (52 percent) said Christianity helps keep the U.S. as a “strong nation,” and nearly as many (49 percent) said the faith had a positive impact on the role of women in society.

Although Christianity has been criticized for its traditional views on abortion, contraception and gender roles, “Americans aren’t buying into it,” said Ron Sellers, president of the Arizona-based Grey Matter Research.

Sellers said he wasn’t surprised that Americans hold their most negative perception for how Christianity impacts sexuality: 37 percent felt there was a negative impact, compared to only 26 percent who felt it was positive.

In six of the 16 areas, sizable numbers of Americans said Christianity had little or no impact, including the environment, business ethics, civility and substance abuse. Americans were roughly split, at about one-third each, on Christianity’s impact on racism.

“What’s real concerning to me, from the perspective of a religious leader,” Sellers said, “is when people say, ‘Eh, it hasn’t had a real impact.'”

The total sample of 1,011 adults selected at random from all 50 states had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

For many, ‘Losing My Religion’ isn’t a song: It’s life

By CATHY LYNN GROSSMAN
c. 2012 USA Today

(RNS) When Ben Helton signed up for an online dating service, under “religion” he called himself “spiritually apathetic.”

On Sunday mornings, when Bill Dohm turns his eyes toward heaven, he’s just checking the weather so he can fly his 1946 Aeronca Champ two-seater plane.

Helton, 28, and Dohm, 54, aren’t atheists. They simply shrug off God, religion, heaven or the ever-trendy search-for-meaning and/or purpose. Their attitude could be summed up as “So what?”

“The real dirty little secret of religiosity in America is that there are so many people for whom spiritual interest, thinking about ultimate questions, is minimal,” said Mark Silk, professor of religion and public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

Clergy and religion experts are dismayed, fearing for souls’ salvation and for the common threads of faith snapping in society. Others see no such dire consequences to a more openly secular America as people not only fess up to being faithless but admit they’re skipping out on spirituality altogether.

Only now, however, are they turning up in the statistical stream. Researchers have begun asking the kind of nuanced questions that reveal just how big the “So What” set might be:

— 44 percent told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom,” and 19 percent said “it’s useless to search for meaning.”

— 46 percent told a 2011 survey by Nashville, Tenn.-based LifeWay Research that they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.

— 28 percent told LifeWay “it’s not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose.” And 18 percent scoffed at the idea that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.

— 6.3 percent of Americans turned up on Pew Forum’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Hemant Mehta, who blogs as the Friendly Atheist, calls them the “apatheists,” while the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, the new Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., calls them honest.

“We live in a society today where it is acceptable now to say that they have no spiritual curiosity. At almost any other time in history, that would have been unacceptable,” Budde said.

She finds this “very sad, because the whole purpose of faith is to be a source of guidance, strength and perspective in difficult times. To be human is to have a sense of purpose, an awareness that our life is an utterly unique expression of creation and we want to live it with meaning, grace and beauty.”

Nah, Helton said.

Helton, a high school band teacher in Chicago, only goes to the Roman Catholic Church of his youth to hear his mother sing in the choir.

His mind led him away. The more Helton read evolutionary psychology and neuropsychology, he said, the more it seemed to him, “We might as well be cars. That, to me, makes more sense than believing what you can’t see.”

Ashley Gerst, 27, a 3-D animator and filmmaker in New York, shifts between “leaning to the atheist and leaning toward apathy.”

“I would just like to see more people admit they don’t believe. The only thing I’m pushy about is I don’t want to be pushed. I don’t want to change others, and I don’t want to debate my view,” she said.

Most “So Whats” are like Gerst, said David Kinnaman, a Christian researcher and author of “You Lost Me,” a book on young adults drifting away from church.

They’re uninterested in trying to talk a diverse set of friends into a shared viewpoint in a culture that celebrates an idea that all truths are equally valid, he said. Personal experience and personal authority matter most, and as a result Scripture and tradition are quaint, irrelevant, artifacts.

“‘Spiritual’ is the hipster way of saying they’re concerned with social injustice. But if you strip away the hipster factor,” said Kinnaman, “I’d estimate seven in 10 young adults would say they don’t see much influence of God or religion in their lives at all.”

The hot religion statistical trend of recent decades was the rise of the “Nones” — the people who checked “no religious identity” on the American Religious Identification Survey — who leapt from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

The “So Whats” appear to be a growing secular subset. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life‘s Landscape Survey dug in to the Nones to discover that nearly half said they believed “nothing in particular.”

Neither raging atheist scientist Richard Dawkins, author of numerous best-sellers such as “The God Delusion,” nor religious broadcaster Pat Robertson would understand this fuzzy stance, said Barry Kosmin, co-author of the ARIS and director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism at Trinity College.

“But a lot of these people are concerned more with the tangible, the real stuff like mortgages or their favorite football team or the everyday world,” Kosmin said.

When church historian Diana Butler Bass researched her upcoming book, “Christianity After Religion,” she found the “So Whats” are “a growing category.”

“We can’t underestimate the power of the collapse of institutional religion in the first 10 years of this century,” she said. “It’s freed so many people to say they don’t really care. They don’t miss rituals or traditions they may never have had anyway.”

(Cathy Lynn Grossman writes for USA Today.)