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February 16, 2009

Making a plea to the faithful in an attempt to end the death penalty

Perhaps some First Amendment scholars can help me figure out whether I should have constitutional concerns about this new AP story from Maryland, headlined "O'Malley asks churches to help end death penalty."  Here is how the article starts:

Gov. Martin O'Malley said today his effort to get the votes to repeal capital punishment in Maryland "is not done," and he asked the religious community to help by petitioning lawmakers facing a difficult decision.  "I need your help. I really and truly do on this death penalty legislation," O'Malley told about 300 people attending the African Methodist Episcopal Church Legislative Day. "It is not done."

The governor also urged repeal supporters not to take any votes for granted on the issue.  "I need your help writing letters.  I need your help persuading.  I need your help even talking to delegates and senators that you may think are probably already with us," O'Malley said. "You never really know."

I am not an expert on church-state issues, and (as detailed in lots of prior posts) there has long been a lot of interesting intersection of capital punishment issues and religious issues.  But something just feels a little hinky about a sitting Governor making a full-throated appeal to church members to actively campaign to support his latest legislative initiative.

Some recent posts about the death debate in Maryland:

Some related posts on religion, politics and the death penalty:

February 16, 2009 at 03:58 PM | Permalink


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A governor rallying citizens around an issue sounds like a healthy thing to me. Sounds like democracy.

Posted by: dm | Feb 16, 2009 5:12:31 PM

It's not hinky, but you can bet your bottom dollar if a GOP politician asked church groups to fight partial birth abortions, the left would go batsh **

Posted by: federalist | Feb 16, 2009 5:33:05 PM


Right leaning pols have been doing that sort of stuff for years.


Not sure in which church you grew up in, but I can recall more than one sermon over the years punctuated with subjects like apartheid (dating myself again), abortion, gambling, booze, and specific pieces of legislation relating to each

Posted by: karl | Feb 16, 2009 6:49:42 PM

Karl, did you have a sitting Governor deliver these sermons on these topics?

I know persons of the cloth often get involved in political issues, and that's not the focus on my concern. Rather, what caught my eye here is a secular state leader reaching out in a religious setting to call for religious persons to get behind his secular political goals.

I think federalist is correct that there would be a lot more concern about this plea to the faithful if O'Malley was making a strong pitch against gay marriage or against gun control.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 17, 2009 6:49:25 AM


If your question is whether I have been present when an elected official has taken the pulpit the answer is yes, a Governor, no. With that stated, there is nothing new here, on issues of life conservative and catholic politicians have regularly taken to the pulpit, if not on Sunday morning during the week. On issues pertaining to the social gospel, liberal politicians likewise regularly take to the pulpit (Rev. Jesse. Jackson).

I don't have a problem with politicians in the pulpit, but perhaps that is because I see a major distinction between a politician in a preacher's pulpit and a preacher preaching the gospels at the State of the Union.

Posted by: karl | Feb 17, 2009 7:02:11 AM

Professor Berman - you seem to be misunderstanding the article - the article states that the Governor made the statement to the pastors and members of the church at the church's legislative day. That means that the church members and ministers he was speaking to were ones that made the decision to travel to Anapolis to make their concerns known to the General Assembly (I have participated in a similar event in Virginia - and no the governor did not speak, but a member of his cabinet (who happened to be a former office holder from the opposite party) did speak to the gathering). Thus, the Governor was speaking at a secular political event (albeit one that happened to be sponsored by a church with a history of social activism).

There is nothing at all unseemly about a governor speaking about political issues at a political event which took place at a political location - even if the group in question is a religious group. People of faith are just as entitled to petition the government regarding their secular concerns as any other interest group.

Posted by: Zack | Feb 17, 2009 5:16:46 PM

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