More than 500 faith leaders across the country have endorsed a statement calling for a new trial for a Texas death row inmate claiming religious discrimination in the selection of his jury.
National faith leaders including Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne of Red Letter Christians, author Brian McLaren and Baptist ethicist David Gushee issued a statement Feb. 16 supporting Christopher Anthony Young, a 33-year-old man from San Antonio, Texas, sentenced to death for killing a mini-mart and dry cleaners owner during an armed robbery in 2004.
Among other things, Young argues that one prospective juror interviewed at his 2006 trial was dismissed because prosecutors believed her association with an outreach ministries program at her Baptist church might bias her against imposing the death penalty.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to strike a juror based on her affiliation with her church,” said Pastor Joel Hunter at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, Fla., and a lead signatory. “As evangelical Christians, we firmly believe that people of all faiths and backgrounds should be able to participate as jurors.”
Prosecutors dismissed prospective juror Myrtlene Williams, one of six African Americans in the 60-member jury pool, because they believed her membership in Outreach Ministries at San Antonio’s Calvary Baptist Church could cause her to be more sympathetic to the defendant, particularly in the punishment phase of trial.
During questioning Williams said that while some members of the group visited jails and prisons in an effort to rehabilitate persons who are incarcerated, she did not personally work with prisoners. Another reason given for her dismissal was she had a daughter with a past conviction of a larceny-type offense in another state.
The statement by faith leaders said her removal was wrong.
“Membership in a particular church or association with a particular ministry is not a fair basis for preventing someone from carrying out her civic duty as a juror,” they said. “Indeed, eliminating a particular juror based solely on her religious affiliation offends the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution.”
Young, who is African American, also has argued that the state used Williams’ religious affiliation and daughter’s criminal history as a pretext to dismiss five of the six impaneled jurists who were black.
The Fifth U.S. Court of Appeals denied Young’s right to appeal his conviction in August. The U.S. Supreme Court will confer March 3 about whether to accept the case.
The faith leaders said they do not all agree on the morality of capital punishment and are not stating an opinion about whether or not Young deserves to die.
“We do believe, however, that the process by which he was sentenced to death was tainted by the decision of the government to strike a juror, not because of her personal beliefs, but solely because she was affiliated with a ministry that works to improve the lives of the poor, the elderly, and the incarcerated,” they said. “Indeed, the government struck this juror even though she did not personally work with prisoners; she was removed, in short, because of her mere association with a church that pursued its mission of aiding the weak.”
Gushee, director of the Center for Theology and Public Life and Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, currently serves as interim pastor at First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., a flagship congregation in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Two years ago Gushee and other individual CBF members campaigned unsuccessfully for clemency for Kelly Gissendaner, the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years and a graduate of a prison theology program sponsored by a consortium including Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, one of the CBF’s partner schools.
Other Baptists signing on in support of a new trial for Young include Fisher Humphreys, a retired professor at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School and member at Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, Ala.; Mikael Broadway, associate professor of theology and ethics at Shaw University Divinity School and associate minister at Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, N.C.; Roger Olson, Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas; and Frederick Haynes III, senior pastor at Friendship-West Baptist Church Dallas.
The joint statement and full list of signatories is here.