The state of Maryland's recent repeal of the death penalty, being celebrated today by the state's faith community, is also the culmination of several years of work by the area's United Church of Christ community. Central Atlantic Conference Minister the Rev. John Deckenback, who has been leading the charge to urge lawmakers to abolish capital punishment, is finally able to celebrate the achievement.
"Abolition of the death penalty in Maryland has been a long-term goal of the Central Atlantic Conference," said Deckenback, who for the last two years has helped coordinate the efforts of the Ecumenical Leaders Group in Maryland. The ELG, which celebrated the news at an event on Friday, has leaders from Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities that advocated for the repeal of the death penalty.
"Over the years we have met with governors, legislators and testified before committees and commissions," he said. "This has been strong united effort by Maryland's faith community."
Maryland became the sixth state in six years, and the 18th in the country, to abolish the death penalty when the House of Delegates voted 82-56 to repeal capital punishment. Governor Martin O'Malley began urging the state legislature to repeal the death penalty when he came into office in 2007. He credited grass-roots lobbying efforts of faith leaders throughout the state and the NAACP as part of the reason the law was overturned. The bill goes to O'Malley's desk, and will be signed into law in the upcoming weeks.
The issue could still go before voters because a provision in the state constitution allows citizens to petition newly-approved laws via referendum, which they did last year with marriage equality legislation.
"We are delighted that Maryland's legislature has voted to end the death penalty in Maryland. Now we await the governor's promised signature and trust that proponents will not go to referendum," Deckenback said.
In 2008, Deckenback said in his testimony before the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment that he believed the state shouldn't condone the death penalty. "We should be about the business of bringing about true justice, healing and reconciliation."
"We want to thank the governor, the NAACP and the (Maryland) faith community," said the Rev. Sala W. J. Nolan Gonzales,UCC minister for criminal justice and human rights. "There were a lot of activists engaged in working with people on death row, giving visibility that we weren't going to leave them there."
Nolan said she looks forward to continuing the UCC's advocacy work to abolish the death penalty with movements in states such as Connecticut and Ohio.
The United Church of Christ has opposed the death penalty since 1969, and has reaffirmed that stance several times since during its biennial General Synod – the main deliberative body of the church. More resources and information on the UCC's position on capital punishment are available online.