An exclusive interview with Greg Schleppenbach, Executive Director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference
CMN: What was your reaction to the successful passage of LB 268 to repeal the death penalty?
GREG SCHLEPPENBACH: It was overwhelming; this vote represents many years of effort to repeal the death penalty. It was certainly a historic day. The gallery balcony was packed with supporters and the chamber was crowded with lobbyists and staffers. Everyone was riveted during the debate; we all felt we were a part of something very significant. And when it came time for the final vote, the result was immensely gratifying!
CMN: How important was the Catholic voice in this effort?
GREG: It was very important. A number of lobbyists and senators have said the Catholic Bishops and the Catholic voice in this debate were essential to the success of repeal.
The Nebraska Catholic Conference contributed to the collaborative repeal effort in several ways. A top priority was to produce a joint statement from the Catholic Bishops summarizing the Church’s teaching on capital punishment and encouraging the passage of this pro-life legislation. Archbishop Lucas, on behalf of all the Bishops, participated in a religious leaders press conference with other faith communities during the voting process. The Conference engaged our supporters through action alerts and we continued to develop relationships with lawmakers.
Our message has the power to influence the hearts and minds of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. One senator, who is not Catholic, said he found the Church’s teaching on the death penalty very compelling. He accepted the belief that capital punishment, while not always intrinsically evil, is also not necessary to protect society and is not in keeping with respect for life.
CMN: How does repeal move Nebraska and our country towards a culture of life?
GREG: This debate advanced the dignity of human life. When we elect to stop executions because we have the means to protect society without killing, we send a strong message about our respect for God’s gift of life.
We can use this message as the basis for our lobby efforts on other pro-life legislation. Our consistency on life issues is one of the most powerful assets of the Church and it gives us credibility when we approach Senators for support on abortion laws, for example. Much of the debate on LB 268 was centered on human dignity principles and we want to use this momentum for future bills.
CMN: What advice do you have for Catholics in other states who are considering repeal?
GREG: The leadership of the Bishops is critical. Many Catholics do not have a full understanding of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty and a clear message from the Bishops is invaluable.
Developing relationships with lawmakers across the political spectrum is important. This session we had many freshman conservative senators that had an openness to repeal and we reached out to them in a special way. The Church’s position on public policy is neither liberal nor conservative and this grants us the ability to build bi-partisan coalitions.
CMN: How did you first get involved in the death penalty issue?
GREG: My predecessor, Jim Cunningham, did a lot of work on death penalty repeal and the Nebraska Catholic Conference has been involved with this issue for years. In many ways, I feel like a runner in the last leg of a relay race. When I took over as Executive Director last fall, I studied the issue in greater depth and joined the collaborative efforts to achieve repeal with partners like Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. I am grateful to have been a part of this historic event.