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Nebraska bishops commend state lawmakers for repealing death penalty

Legislature overrides the governor’s veto

Nebraska’s three Catholic bishops voiced support for state lawmakers for repealing the death penalty May 27, commenting after the Legislature narrowly overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of a bill replacing capital punishment with life in prison without parole.

“The Catholic bishops of Nebraska commend the Nebraska Legislature for voting, definitively, to repeal the death penalty in our state,” Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha and Bishops James D. Conley of Lincoln and Joseph G. Hanefeldt of Grand Island said in a joint statement.

“We recognize many men and women of good will on both sides of the debate,” the bishops said. “May all Nebraskans continue working together for peace, justice, safety, and the common good.”

Ricketts vetoed the bill May 26, but the Legislature's 30-19 vote was just enough to override the veto and make Nebraska the 19th state to repeal the death penalty. It takes at least 30 of 49 senators to overturn a veto.

After the vote, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, who has said he supports capital punishment, said he will challenge as unconstituional part of the bill that would change the sentences of 10 inmates already on death row to life in prison.

The bishops encouraged all people to pray for civic leaders, police officers and first responders, for the victims of violent crimes and their families, and for the incarcerated.

“May the peace of Jesus Christ reign in our hearts, our communities, and in our state,” they said.

Working through the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops’ public policy interests, the state’s bishops spoke strongly for repealing death penalty, issuing comments May 20 commending lawmakers for their 32-15 vote for Legislative Bill 268, replacing capital punishment with life in prison. And at a May 13 news conference in Omaha, Archbishop Lucas joined about 15 leaders of other faiths, priests and nuns in calling for repeal.

Greg Schleppenbach, NCC executive director, also issued emails to members of the Catholic Advocacy Network of Nebraska, the conference’s grassroots faithful citizenship initiative, urging them to contact their state senators in support of repeal.

At the news conference at the Omaha Press Club, Archbishop Lucas said he was pleased and privileged “to join friends from other faith communities at this important moment.”

He also detailed the church’s stand, saying Catholic teaching recognizes the state has recourse to the death penalty if it is the only available means to protect society from a grave threat to human life. But because of improvements in the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent, the archbishop said.

The death penalty does not provide rehabilitation and there is no clear evidence that executions deter crime, the archbishop said. At the same time, some criminals will never be fit for reintegration into society and just sentences are needed to keep Nebraskans safe, he said.

“Public safety can be assured through other means,” the archbishop said. “And justice requires punishment, but it does not require that those who have committed capital crimes be put to death.”

Responding to a question about loved ones of victims who may find it difficult to forgive perpetrators, Archbishop Lucas said they deserve support, love and concern.

“Our hearts go out to any individual and families who have suffered from violence,” he said.

While acknowledging the need for justice, Archbishop Lucas called for a broader understanding, which values the life of every person. 

“We think that there are other just ways to punish those who are certainly guilty of very serious crimes,” he said.

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