WASHINGTON (June 8, 2001) -- In an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief filed today in the U.S. Supreme Court, the United States Catholic Conference and a broad array of religious groups declared that the execution of persons with mental retardation violates "the standards of decency of American society and the Eighth Amendment guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment."
The religious groups--reflecting Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist traditions--acknowledged they hold differing views on whether the state ever has the right to impose capital punishment. "Although we disagree among ourselves on the morality of capital punishment generally, we join our voices to urge the Court to see the indecency of executing persons with mental retardation," they said.
The United States Catholic Conference (USCC) is an organization of the Catholic Bishops of the United States. The Conference promotes the pastoral teaching of the Church on diverse issues, including the protection of human rights and the sanctity and dignity of human life.
The brief was filed (June 8) in the case of Ernest Paul McCarver v. North Carolina, a death penalty case in which the Court has agreed to revisit the issue of whether the Constitution permits the execution of mentally retarded inmates. A decision is expected sometime next year.
In addition to the USCC, other amici include The American Jewish Committee, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition Inc. (a Tibetan Buddhist organization), the General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, Clifton Kirkpatrick, as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Masjid Malcolm Shabazz (a Muslim religious house of worship in New York), the Mennonite Central Committee (Washington office), Progressive Jewish Alliance, and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
"As religious bodies and religiously-affiliated organizations, we are uniquely qualified to comment on moral issues such as the death penalty," the brief said. "Few (if any) institutions can claim a greater tradition of working with and studying the conscience of the human person and related questions of guilt, blame and punishment than the religious community. These amici have developed a rich tradition of reflection and scholarship that has informed and been informed by the experience of countless millions of people over centuries. Failure to consider these views would diminish the authority this Court would bring to the resolution of these essentially moral questions."
"It would be unwise to dismiss as 'uncertain' or 'unobjective' the considered judgment of the Nation's churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples," the brief continued. "These bodies exist for the very purpose of educating, uplifting and inspiring our citizenry and, perhaps more than any other institutions, they shape the evolving standards of morality and decency to which the Eighth Amendments's requirements are inextricably tied...The views of religious organizations are an especially helpful means of identifying forms of punishment that do and do not constitute a 'reasoned moral response'... that conform to 'evolving standards of decency.'"
"Morality and decency are subjects on which religious bodies legitimately can claim a particular experience and competence," the brief asserted. "Every revival of the conscience of the country has had as its center religious leaders and congregations. Whether the call was for abolition, or temperance, or equal rights under law, religious leaders have been in the forefront of these movements."
"From the Nation's founding, and especially during times of intense debate on moral issues, the religious community has played a pivotal role in shaping the national conscience. The amici's collective views are therefore an important benchmark of the Nation's evolving standards of decency. Moreover, the amici by their nature have experience and expertise in evaluating moral questions such as capital punishment. Drawing on that experience and expertise, we are convinced that applying the death penalty, a punishment that this Court has said must be reserved for the most blameworthy, to persons with mental retardation--those whose intellectual and adaptive impairments by definition render them among the least blameworthy--is the very embodiment of arbitrariness and disproportionality which this Court rejected in...other cases. Such a practice also fails to serve the legitimate ends for which punishment may be imposed. The execution of persons with mental retardation...violates the central lessons of this Court's death penalty decisions and is contrary to contemporary standards of decency."
Full text of the brief, including reflections on capital punishment by each of the co-signers.