LINCOLN, Neb.-A decision by Republican Gov. Mike Johanns to veto an anti-death penalty bill has sparked a heated debate about what role an elected official's faith should play in their policy decision.

Johanns, a Catholic, vetoed a death penalty moratorium bill May 27 that had passed the state Legislature the week before. The bill called for a halt to executions in Nebraska for two years while a state-sponsored panel could study the fairness of the state's implementation of the death penalty. It was the first anti-death penalty bill to pass the Legislature in two decades. It passed by a vote of 27–21.

Johanns' veto of the bill sparked immediate, and sometimes personal, criticism from some death penalty opponents.

“The governor is a political opportunist and hypocrite,” state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha told the Register. “He wears his religion on his sleeve when it's politically popular, but turns his back on it at other times.”

Chambers' harsh words for Johanns stem from the fact that the governor is both a Catholic and strongly anti-abortion. To Chambers, an Independent who has led legislative battles to abolish the death penalty since it was reinstated in Nebraska in 1973, Johanns' veto shows disregard for what he sees as the “injustice” of the death penalty. In addition, Chambers called the governor a “hypocrite” for claiming to be “pro-life,” but supportive of the death penalty.

“To be anti-abortion in Nebraska is politically popular, but to be anti-death penalty is not politically popular,” he said. “The governor simply wants to please as many politically active people as possible.”

“My role as governor is to do all that I can to carry out the law for the benefit of the victims and their families”

— Gov. Mike Johanns

In a statement issued to legislators, Johanns defended his decision. “I believe that the two-year moratorium provision contained within the bill is poor public policy,” the governor said. “Second, I believe that the legal issues surrounding enactment of this legislation would, at a minimum, be utilized to advance further unnecessary criminal appeals by those currently sentenced to death row in Nebraska.”

He also argued that the veto was necessary to assist the families of those who have been the victims of violent crimes.

“I focus on the families of the victims and the victims themselves,” he said. “The death penalty is the law of our state. I feel strongly that part of my role as governor is to do all that I can to carry out the law for the benefit of the victims and their families. The moratorium would be just one more roadblock to bringing closure for them.”

Nebraska Catholic Conference Executive Director Jim Cunningham, an opponent of the death penalty, wasn't as harsh on the governor as other critics.

“We're disappointed the moratorium was not enacted,” said Cunningham. “We were hopeful the governor would see fit not to veto the action of the legislative majority.”

Cunningham said he was pleased that even though Johanns vetoed the moratorium bill, the Legislature did override his veto in part, allotting $160,000 to a study to determine if the state's death penalty law is being carried out fairly.

“We're pleased that the study will be carried out,” said Cunningham. “It's certainly better than losing on all aspects of the bill.”

In response to Chambers' sharp attacks on Johanns in regard to his Catholicism and anti-abortion stand, Cunningham was quick to defend the governor.

“Senator Chambers is equally, if not more, inconsistent in his positions than Governor Johanns,” said Cunningham, noting that Chambers is one of the most vocal abortion supporters in the Nebraska Legislature. “It's our hope that both would oppose abortion and capital punishment.”

Cunningham also challenged Chambers' opinion that an opponent of abortion must also oppose the death penalty.

“There is a distinction between abortion and capital punishment,” he said.

“It's the Church's view that direct abortion is an intrinsic evil and always wrong. There is an innocent human being involved who has no due process and no consideration under the law.”

“With capital punishment one has the benefit of the full course of due process,” he said, while noting that the legal system may not always treat individuals fairly during the process.

Cunningham referred to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in explaining the distinction: “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings against the aggressor. … Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender today are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (No. 2267).

Cunningham calls this passage a “narrow, limited justification for capital punishment,” contrary to the Church's absolute ban on all direct abortions. For this reason, he said, he gives Johanns the benefit of the doubt.

“We believe that the governor took into account the efforts we made to support all aspects of the bill and that he did weigh the information we provided him,” Cunningham said. “It's not appropriate to criticize the governor on grounds he should be against capital punishment because he's against abortion.”

“The Catechism says there are limited, extremely rare, practically nonexistent cases where capital punishment is permissible,” he said.

“Presumably the governor does-n't agree with that and thinks it [capital punishment] is necessary to protect society and Nebraskans.”

38 Allow Death Penalty

According to statistics from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, 38 states currently have laws allowing the death penalty, but not all states impose death sentences.

Since 1972, 546 people have been executed in the United States. Of those individuals, 56% were white, 35% were black and 7% were Latino.

Texas leads the nation in executions, followed by Virginia and Missouri. This year alone, 46 people have been executed.

Brian Henninger, program coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based coalition, said the Nebraska debate over the death penalty is a sign of things to come.

“There's no question that legislatures across the country are taking a closer look at the application of the death penalty,” Henninger told the Register. “Even those who favor the death penalty have an interest in assuring that it's fair and not killing innocent people.”

Pointing out that Johanns is a Catholic, Henninger said the governor took a “big risk” in vetoing the moratorium bill, especially in light of Pope John Paul II's recent statements criticizing the death penalty and his repeated efforts to secure clemency for those awaiting executions.

“It was a ‘no lose’ situation for him,” said Henninger. “What is the hurry? Why not wait and see what the results of the study are?”

Observers on all sides seem to agree that the Pope's increasing vocal opposition to the practice is having an impact on the public policy debate.

“The Pope's strong position has made it possible for Catholic legislators to cast a vote of conscience on this issue,” said Sen. Chambers. “I believe a good number of senators voted in favor of the moratorium bill because of the Pope's position.”

Cunningham agrees with Chambers that the Pope's words are sinking in, although he couldn't cite specific examples of Nebraska senators who voted differently on the bill because of the Pope's recent statements. Cunningham said the Nebraska Catholic Conference made a concerted effort to make legislators aware of the Pope's statements on the subject in Evangelium Vitae and during his recent trip to St. Louis.

“The Pope's very strong comments about the lack of justification for the death penalty in today's day and age does give many public policy makers some pause to reflect on this issue,” said Cunningham.

Greg Chesmore writes from Bloomington, Indiana.