State Ballot Initiatives 2016: Death Penalty and Assisted Suicide Among Key Issues for Catholics

Measures to legalize marijuana are another focus for voters in several states.

(photo: Photo Illustration by Shitterstock/Joseph Sohm)

Editor's Note: This story was first posted on Oct. 6. It is in our Oct. 16 print edition.


Voters in November will be choosing more than who will be the next president of the United States or which party controls the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.

More than 160 statewide ballot measures have been certified for the ballots in 35 states, and many of those ballot questions deal with notable topics such as marijuana legalization, gun control, the death penalty, the minimum wage and physician-assisted suicide.

The Catholic bishops in some states with controversial measures on the ballot have spoken out and staked out positions related to defending human life from assisted suicide and capital punishment, and they have also urged voters to reject legalizing marijuana.

“Catholics are really looking for help on the 17 ballot initiatives in California,” said Steve Pehanich, senior director of advocacy and education for the California Catholic Conference, noting that the bishops have taken positions on three initiatives relating to the death penalty and reforming the state’s criminal-justice system. The conference also offers resources for Catholic voters on the other ballot measures.

California’s Catholic bishops have come out strong in favor of Proposition 62, which would abolish capital punishment in California and make life without parole the harshest prison sentence for convicted murders and other violent criminals. The bishops oppose another death penalty-related measure, Proposition 66, which proponents say would streamline the capital-punishment system and remove delays.

“It is time for us to end the death penalty — not only in California, but throughout the United States and throughout the world,” Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles said in a Sept. 21 essay reflecting on the development of Church teaching on the death penalty.

Pehanich told the Register that Proposition 66 would remove important safeguards from executing innocent people wrongly convicted, and he argued that it is a common practice in his state for opponents of certain measures to introduce their own ballot initiatives to confuse the issue.

“Both sides agree the death penalty is broken and doesn’t work in California,” said Pehanich, adding that the conference has produced resources for homilies, bulletin announcements and inserts to educate Catholics on the ballot measure.

“Basically, all life is sacred, whether it’s innocent or flawed,” Pehanich said. “With the death penalty, we take away the chance to find mercy and redemption. It’s not really something that heals. We’re really concerned with the victims, and we want to promote healing. The endless rounds of appeals just prolong the agony.”


Nebraska and Oklahoma

Voters in Nebraska will also have to decide on Referendum 426, which asks them to affirm or repeal the legislature’s vote last year that outlawed the death penalty in the Cornhusker State. Tom Veznor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, told the Register that the bishops are seeking to educate Catholics and people of goodwill on why the vote should be maintained.

“The bishops want to engage in the work of public education and formation of consciences on the Church’s teaching on the death penalty and to articulate the position that the bishops took last year when the legislature repealed the death penalty,” said Veznor, adding the bishops and the state Catholic conference are using social media, parish outreach and secular media to get out their message.

“The bishops have taken a position in line with the Catechism: that it’s absolutely not necessary to execute an offender because public safety can be secured without recourse to the death penalty,” Veznor said.

In Oklahoma, State Question 776 asks voters if they want to amend the state’s constitution to include the death penalty, which would make it clear that the state could execute criminals if one method of capital punishment is declared invalid or unconstitutional.

Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City has been a vocal opponent of the death penalty, calling it “morally obsolete” and urging Catholics and all people in Oklahoma to work toward the abolition of capital punishment in Oklahoma.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “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 an unjust aggressor. … If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority should limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. … Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’” (2267).


Euthanasia Lobby Targets Colorado

The death penalty is not the only life issue on a statewide ballot. The assisted-suicide lobby is pushing hard to make Colorado, a state with libertarian leanings, the sixth in the country to legalize the practice. Proposition 106 would make it legal for physicians to dispense lethal drugs to patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses and given less than six months to live.

Colorado’s Catholic bishops are urging their state’s voters to reject the measure, and through the Colorado Catholic Conference, they are calling upon elected officials to improve access to palliative care and hospice care for those in the final stages of a terminal illness.

“If we really invest our resources in hospice care, that really alleviates a lot of folks’ concerns,” said Jeff Hunt, director of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University. Hunt told the Register that many voters in Colorado are interested in physician-assisted suicide because people are suffering, but he said the measure lacks adequate safeguards and would erode the bonds of solidarity between the young and healthy and the sick and old.

A right to die, Hunt said, would eventually become a duty to die.

“This really is the state’s abdication of its responsibility to protect the life of the poor, the infirm and the elderly,” said Hunt, adding that the state should have a vested interest in protecting sick and vulnerable people’s right to life and ensuring that no government agency or insurance company will undermine that right.


Marijuana Measures

Catholic bishops in two states — Massachusetts and Florida — have come out against legalizing marijuana. In Florida, Amendment 2 would legalize medical marijuana. Through the Florida Catholic Conference, the Sunshine State’s bishops said the amendment, at first glance, appeals to a sense of empathy, but the measure contains problematically vague definitions and terms.

“Compassion compels efforts to care for the sick and to alleviate suffering. However, in this pursuit, society must ensure that those in need are not further endangered by exposing them to even greater harm,” said Florida’s Catholic bishops, warning that the amendment would allow for greater access to marijuana by youth and contains no assurances for the quality and consistency in the drug.

Massachusetts voters legalized medical marijuana in 2012, and this November, they will decide if they want to legalize recreational marijuana smoking by voting Yes or No on Question 4. The Bay State’s four Catholic bishops released a statement on Oct. 4 warning voters that marijuana use and abuse by youth in Colorado has increased by 20% since that state legalized recreational marijuana in January 2014.

“Legalizing a drug for recreational use that causes these effects on the human body, particularly our youth, is not a path civil society should choose to take,” said the Massachusetts bishops, who added that the Catholic Church teaches that “the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.”

Marijuana-related measures are also on the ballots in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Maine, Montana, Nevada and North Dakota. The Arizona Catholic Conference has come out against Proposition 205, noting that the bishops oppose the “dangerous proposal” because of the detrimental effects it would have on children, families and all of society.

Said the Arizona bishops, “Legalizing the recreational use of marijuana sends a message to children and young people that drug use is socially and morally acceptable.”


Minimum Wage and Gun Control

Other ballot measures of note include efforts to raise the minimum wage in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington and to decrease the minimum wage for workers under age 18 in South Dakota.

Proposed new gun regulations are also on the ballot in California, Maine, Nevada and Washington.


Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.