Latino evangelicals oppose death penalty. Will others follow?


Days after an Arizona court exonerated Debra Milke, a woman who spent more than two decades on death row, a leading group of Latino evangelicals has called for an end to state-sanctioned capital punishment. In a unanimous vote, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC) urged their 3,000 member congregations to end capital punishment across the country. “As Christ followers, we are called to work toward justice for all,” NaLEC President Gabriel Salguero said. “And as Latinos, we know too well that justice is not always even-handed."

The organization is the first national association of evangelical churches to publicly oppose capital punishment. Salguero said the decision came after a years-long discernment process that included prayer as well as dialogue with anti-death penalty groups like Equal Justice USA (EJUSA) since at least 2013.

“EJUSA has found that evangelicals are eager to take another look at this issue, reflecting what we're seeing in the country as a whole,” EJUSA’s Executive Director Shari Silberstein said.

American support for the death penalty has hit the lowest levels in 40 years and a 2014 poll by the Barna Group showed that Christian support is also waning, especially among young adults. According to Barna, only 5 percent of Americans think Jesus would support the government’s ability to execute the worst criminals.

Many religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, oppose the death penalty but evangelical groups tend to take a more conservative stance. The 16-million member Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, issued a resolution in 2000 supporting “the fair and equitable use of capital punishment.” The Assemblies of God (AG) denomination states that opinion among their members is “mixed” but that more people associated with the AG favor it for certain types of crimes.

“NaLEC is the first major evangelical association to take this step,” Silberstein said, “but I don't think they will be the last.”

Her prediction is purely speculation at this point, but with the low public support for these policies, anything is possible. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), for example, supports the use of capital punishment. But their position hasn’t been updated since 1973 and sources within the NAE say that leadership is considering switching their position in the months ahead.