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Faith In Action: Capital Punishment
Activity time: 30 minutes
Materials for Activity
- Newsprint, markers and tape
- Leader Resource 5, Capital Punishment Resolution and/or Leader Resource 6, Capital Punishment Resolution - Simplified
- Poster-making materials (poster board, markers and tape)
- Optional: Letter-writing materials (writing paper, envelopes, pens/pencils and names and addresses of legislators)
Preparation for Activity
- Research current capital punishment information, including the laws in your state. Sources include the Death Penalty Information Center (find a list of states that do and do not have capital punishment) and Capital Punishment Statistics compiled and summarized by the United States Department of Justice.
- Print out Leader Resource 5 and/or Leader Resource 6. If you plan to invite volunteers to read items of the GA resolution aloud, make multiple copies.
- Post blank newsprint.
- For poster-making. Review Leader Resources 5 and 6. Extract phrases youth can use on posters for the congregational meeting space. Write these on newsprint, and post. Leave room on the newsprint for youth to brainstorm additional phrasing for posters. Secure permission to display posters (from congregational staff or appropriate committees).
- For letter-writing. Obtain legislators' names, addresses and their voting history and current positions on capital punishment. Find sample letters online-the website of Students Against the Death Penalty is a good starting point-and make copies to distribute at work tables. Identify an adult who will purchase stamps and mail the letters.
- If you think some youth may opt out of this Faith in Action activity because they do not oppose capital punishment, be ready to offer alternate tasks that support a different Riddle and Mystery Faith in Action project.
Description of Activity
If the group has begun an ongoing Faith in Action project, continue work on it.
Or, consider this short-term Faith in Action project:
Unitarian Universalism and Capital Punishment. The topic of capital punishment emerges naturally from the session's focus on the meaning of death. Acquaint the group with the Unitarian Universalist Association's stance against capital punishment. Then, ask the group to make posters to familiarize your congregation with that stance and/or write advocacy letters to legislators. Plan to include discussion to determine where youth stand on the issue.
Ask the group to define "capital punishment" - putting people to death as punishment for crimes they are convicted of committing.
Say that most Unitarian Universalists believe capital punishment is wrong. Congregations agreed on this at a General Assembly (GA) meeting in 1961. At that GA, the UUA resolved to oppose capital punishment in the U.S. and Canada and the UUA has continued to oppose it ever since. (You might explain that the General Assembly is a meeting of representatives of UU congregations. These meetings have been held each year since the Unitarians and Universalists came together in 1961 and are where the Association makes many decisions together.)
Read the text of the GA resolution (Leader Resource 5) or the simplified version (Leader Resource 6) aloud to the group. Or, hand out copies for participants to share and invite volunteers to each read a bullet point aloud. Lead a discussion to clarify the resolution's meaning. Write key phrases on newsprint.
Carefully unpack the clause "WHEREAS, capital punishment has not always been used impartially among all economic and racial groups in America." Point out that capital punishment is an economic justice issue. Explain that judges give death sentences disproportionately more to poor people. If you have found relevant statistics, share them. Ask the youth to consider why this may be so. If none raise this point, suggest:
One reason may be because poor defendants are often represented by court-appointed attorneys. They generally earn less than private lawyers and may have less time to work on each client's case. Someone rich can hire any lawyer they want, so they may have a better chance of presenting evidence of their innocence and convincing the court they are innocent or deserve a lighter sentence.
Ask the group to think about how it would feel to have been arrested and have no choice in who would be your lawyer.
Mention there is another justice problem with capital punishment. The death penalty has not always been doled out fairly to all ethnic groups. Tell the group:
There seems to be prejudice in the courts. Statistics show that many state and local court systems punish African Americans and other people of color more readily and more harshly than white Americans charged with the same crimes. So, if a state allows capital punishment, it is likely to threaten the lives of people of color the most.
Another economic issue related to capital punishment is the cost of a death penalty court case. A murder trial where the death penalty is sought costs the public three times as much as a murder trial where the government seeks to punish the defendant with life in prison. This means money that could be used to improve the lives of many citizens is being used to bring about the death of one. Tell the group there is much debate about which costs more, securing the death penalty for a crime, holding the convicted prisoner on Death Row and finally executing them, or securing a life-without-parole conviction and then supporting the prisoner in jail for the rest of their life.
Tell the group the information you have learned about capital punishment in your state. Ask youth whether they agree with the Unitarian Universalist Association position and wish to help end capital punishment. If they do, suggest building awareness about the issue in your congregation with a poster-making activity-by posting elements of the 1961 GA resolution to remind congregants that the UUA is still fighting to eliminate the death penalty in all the U.S. states and Canada. Point out the phrases from the resolution which you have posted. On the newsprint, add youth's ideas for more poster phrases to explain that the issue is still not resolved and why it is important. Help the youth come up with short slogans for the posters, for example, "Don't Take a Life" or "The Death Penalty Does Not Serve Justice."
If you live in a death penalty state and have targeted legislators to whom youth can write, invite them to write letters. You might also write letters to national leaders.
Distribute materials and engage youth to begin working individually or in small groups to make posters (or write letters). Save some time or plan another time for youth to post completed posters around the congregational facility. Consider explaining and announcing the posters via your the congregational newsletter, website, worship announcements or a coffee hour announcement.
If Youth Disagree
While the youth will likely support the UUA's position, some may not. Many people in this country do support capital punishment. Like many adults, some youth may feel some crimes are so horrible that people committing them should themselves be killed. Chances of youth taking this stand may be higher if a horrible crime has been reported recently.
If youth disagree with the UUA or with each other about capital punishment, help them process their disagreement. Affirm that in our faith, we covenant about what we will do together in our congregations and as the Unitarian Universalist Association. That does not mean all members always agree. People can argue for a change in the UUA stand. See if youth would like to invite an adult with knowledge of UUA processes and procedures to talk with them about how to make pro-capital punishment or other minority views known in your congregation or the UUA.
Keep the discussion respectful, but limit the time you spend. See what next steps the group wants to take. Suggest:
- They group could agree to disagree, for now. They could set a future time and place to debate capital punishment at greater length.
- The group might like to research pro- and/or con-capital punishment arguments on their own. Perhaps the youth would like to invite an adult advocate from each side to speak; talk with your religious educator, minister and members of your Social Action Committee to explore whether this might become an event for the entire congregation.
- For today, some of the group can work to end capital punishment while others do a different Faith in Action activity. Suggest concrete possibilities; perhaps youth who opt out of today's activity can prepare for a future Faith in Action activity or follow up on one already in progress.
Including All Participants
Some youth process difficult language more easily if they can read the text to themselves while someone else reads it aloud. Consider making a copy of Leader Resource 5 and/or 6 for each youth.