oklahoma

Oklahoma Bill Would Abolish State’s Role in Granting Marriage Licenses, Leave It in Clergy Hands

Photo via Oklahoma State Legislature website / RNS

Oklahoma state Rep. Todd Russ. Photo via Oklahoma State Legislature website / RNS

In an effort to block the state’s involvement with gay marriage, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a bill March 10 to abolish marriage licenses in the state.

The legislation, authored by Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, amends language in the state law that governs the responsibilities of court clerks. All references to marriage licenses were removed.

Russ said the intent of the bill is to protect court clerks caught between the federal and state governments. A federal appeals court overturned Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage last year. Russ, like many Republican legislators in the state, including Gov. Mary Fallin, believes the federal government overstepped its constitutional authority on this issue.

Acknowledging that his bill is partially in response to the federal court ruling, Russ told ABC News affiliate KSWO that the federal government lacks the power to “force its new definitions of what they believe on independent states.”

Georgia Execution Would Be First Since Botched Oklahoma Effort

The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison houses the state’s execution chamber. Creative Commons image by NeilATL.

After an unusual six-week lapse in executions in the nation since a botched effort in Oklahoma on April 29, two men could face lethal-injection deaths in Georgia and Missouri Tuesday night or early Wednesday.

Should the execution of Marcus Wellons go forward at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday in Georgia, it would be that state’s first lethal injection using a drug not federally approved. That’s the result of a scramble by Georgia and other states in recent months to obtain drugs necessary for executions.

Wellons, 59, was sentenced to death for the 1989 rape and murder of 15-year-old India Roberts, whom he abducted as she was on her way to a school bus.

At 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, Missouri is preparing to execute John Winfield, who blinded the mother of his two children and killed two other women in a 1996 shooting spree. A judge on Thursday issued a stay of execution, but prosecutors are seeking to have it lifted in time for Winfield’s execution to proceed.

A third inmate, in Florida, is slated to be put to death Wednesday evening.

Marching Through Death’s Desert

Rev. Jeff Hood begins his pilgrimage. twitter.com/revjeffhood

Rev. Jeff Hood begins his pilgrimage. twitter.com/revjeffhood

It’s 93 degrees in Texas today. And Rev. Jeff Hood is walking 200 miles across the state. What would compel somebody to do that? He wants to end the death penalty … and he is not alone.

Rev. Jeff Hood is a Southern Baptist pastor, deeply troubled by his denomination’s stance on capital punishment. And he is troubled because he lives in the most lethal state in the U.S. Texas has had 515 executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 – the next state in line is Oklahoma with 111. That means Texas is responsible for 37 percent of the executions in the U.S. Jeff has been a longtime organizer and board member for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a movement that is gaining some serious momentum these days.

A growing number of Texans — and Americans in general — are questioning the death penalty. A recent ABC poll shows we are over the tipping point, with more than half of Americans being against the death penalty and in favor of life in prison, putting death penalty support at a new low. For some it is the racial bias – in Texas it is not uncommon for an African American to be found guilty by an all-white jury. In fact, in considering “future dangerousness,” a criteria necessary for execution in Texas, state “experts” have argued that race is a contributing factor, essentially that someone is more likely to be violent because they are black – prompting articles like the headline story in the New York Times about Duane Buck: “Condemned to Die Because He is Black.”

On Capital Punishment, Don’t Start with the Old Testament

Book of Genesis, Janaka Dharmasena / Shutterstock.com

Book of Genesis, Janaka Dharmasena / Shutterstock.com

After this week’s botched execution in Oklahoma, Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued why Christians should support the death penalty at CNN.com. Grounding his argument in Genesis 9:6, where Noah is told that anyone guilty of intentional murder should be put to death, Mohler says, “The one who intentionally takes life by murder forfeits the right to his own life.”

In my experience, most Christian pro-death penalty advocates make similar arguments, rooting themselves in Old Testament teaching. On occasion, they bolster their thinking with a somewhat cryptic reference to the government’s ability to “bear the sword” to “bring punishment on the wrongdoer” by the Apostle Paul. Rarely, will anyone cite Jesus’ teachings.

Mohler is a capable theologian and a thinker I respect. And I have many intelligent friends who support the death penalty. Yet, I think it is problematic for Christians to root their support of capital punishment in the Jewish Scriptures.

No Time for the Death Penalty

Anti-death penalty rally, Robert J. Daveant / Shutterstock.com

Anti-death penalty rally, Robert J. Daveant / Shutterstock.com

In 2009, I accompanied my friend Steve Henley on his journey to execution in Tennessee. As his spiritual advisor, I was able to be with him for a few hours before he was removed from his deathwatch cell and strapped to a gurney. I was there with his family as the blinds were raised and as he tried to make them smile. I was there when he spoke his last words, when the poison entered his veins, when he began to turn blue, and when he finally was declared dead. This image of my friend, who I visited for 10 of his 23 years on death row, will stay with me forever. Steve’s execution lasted about 12 minutes.

Clayton Lockett’s execution lasted 43 minutes. All of those present at his execution — correctional staff, attorneys, media, the victim’s family, clergy, and others — will now live with the image of what happened in Oklahoma on Tuesday. The horror they witnessed will be with them forever, regardless of their opinion of Clayton Lockett. Though Oklahoma officials had all sorts of reasons to suspect that there might be problems with this execution — using an untested mixture of lethal injection drugs whose source was kept secret — they proceeded for the sake of expediency, leading to the inevitable cruelty that followed.

By all accounts, Clayton Lockett did a terrible thing. He shot and killed 19-year-old Stephanie Nieman in 1999, taking away her life and all its possibilities. Some might even say that Clayton Lockett got what he deserved for his crime. But was what the state of Oklahoma did on Monday really about Clayton Lockett?

Capital Punishment and the Power of Art

Dead Man Walking play performed in 2002, Photo by creighton_ccas / Flickr.com

Dead Man Walking play performed in 2002, Photo by creighton_ccas / Flickr.com

The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on Tuesday has refocused the nation on the inherent contradictions in the death penalty. But here in Wisconsin last week, an opera helped focus the attention of one community on the many human issues woven into the debate over crime and punishment.

In real life at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, a mix of lethal drugs injected into the body of Lockett caused seizures rather than immediate death. On stage in the opera version of Dead Man Walking, the drug machine clicks, hums, and whirrs with efficiency, leaving the fictional character Joe DerRocher dead on the stage.

Dead Man Walking — the book by Sr. Helen Prejean about her work with prisoners on death row and the families of their victims — became an award-winning movie in the mid-1990s starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was recreated as an opera in 2000 and since then has played in 40 cities.

What happened in Madison, Wis., last week was more than the presentation of an opera. It was the culmination of six weeks of some 20 events engaging about 1,500 community members in discussion of many facets of the criminal justice system. The two performances of the opera itself drew about 3,000 people. It was a classic example of art engaging life.

Capital punishment itself is not so much of an issue in Wisconsin – the state has banned it since 1853. But Wisconsin does have the highest rate of black male incarceration in the nation. Its prison system tilts far more toward punishment than toward treatment and rehabilitation. It imprisons twice as many people as its neighboring and demographically similar state of Minnesota.

U.S. Asks Supreme Court to Review Hobby Lobby’s Birth Control Mandate Challenge

Hobby Lobby store in Ohio. Photo via RNS/courtesy DangApricot via Wikimedia Commons

Federal officials have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the government mandate that private companies offer employees birth control coverage despite the business owner’s moral objections, with the company at the center of the suit owned by billionaire evangelical Christians.

Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit has been one of the most high profile of 60-some cases involving the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate. The arts and crafts chain was founded by David Green, whom Forbes called “the biblical billionaire backing the evangelical movement.”

In June, the Obama administration issued final rules for the mandate that requires most employers to provide contraception at no cost. While there are exemptions for religious groups and affiliated institutions, there are no carve-outs for private businesses with religious owners.

In Baby Veronica Case, Some Evangelicals Side With Adoptive Parents

Veronica with her father Dusten Brown. Photo courtesy RNS/Keep Veronica Home web

Veronica with her father Dusten Brown. Photo courtesy RNS/Keep Veronica Home website

The Baby Veronica case, named for the girl at the center of a contentious child custody dispute, has stirred powerful emotional responses from many groups, including some Christian evangelicals.

Motivated by their faith in God and a distrust of federal Indian policies, a few evangelical organizations are campaigning to abolish the federal Indian Child Welfare Act at the heart of the dispute.

Congress enacted the law in 1978 to address the abuses that separated Indian children from their families through adoption or foster care. The law gives related tribes a preference in custody proceedings involving Indian children.

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