NEW YORK -- California voters will decide next month whether to outlaw capital punishment in their state. With the latest poll showing death penalty abolitionists behind, they are calling on a potent secret weapon: the priests who speak to the state's 10.4 million Catholics.
In a statement released Sept. 27, the Catholic bishops of the state called on voters to support Proposition 34, a voter referendum which would end capital punishment in California.
The movement is also getting a little bit of star power from Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun whose depiction in the film "Dead Man Walking" turned her into perhaps the most famous face of Catholic death penalty opposition.
Prejean was in San Diego on Tuesday to begin what she calls a week-long "blitz" across Southern California to rally voters for Proposition 34. She has been meeting with donors and "just working the churches," she said.
"What we're hoping for here is not the first state to abolish the death penalty, but definitely the largest," Prejean said.
The odds of that happening are mixed at best. A Field Poll earlier in the month showed 42 percent of California voters were in favor of repealing the death penalty, with 45 percent were opposed. A more recent Los Angeles Times survey conducted between Sept. 17 and 23 had Proposition 34 down 51 percent to 38 percent.
"No kidding?" Prejean asked. "Well, that just means we work harder."
"You better believe it's going to make a difference here," she said. "I know from over 20 years of talking to the American public that if you can reach them, you can touch them."
Prejean seems to be correct. Support for the death penalty is declining steadily: 78 percent of Americans backed it in 1996, but only 62 percent of Americans do so today. Earlier this year, Connecticut became the 17th state to take capital punishment off the table.
In California, death penalty opponents have pointed to the high cost of maintaining death row -- an estimated $184 million a year -- in an attempt to appeal to cost-conscious voters.
That cost argument, Prejean said, is about more than just dollars and cents. "The most moral document you ever look at is a budget, because all that money spent on killing a few people is not being spent on at-risk kids," she said, citing Martin Luther King Jr.
Throughout the state, parish priests will be making the moral argument as part of their annual Respect Life Month program, said Father Chris Ponnet, a hospital pastor who is also the Southern California regional coordinator for Pax Christi USA.
Respect Life is more often associated with the church's opposition to abortion rights, but Ponnet said priests gave a spontaneous round of applause to Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez when he reiterated his opposition to the death penalty.
"The Catholic Church sees this as part of its consistent life ethics, as we opposed taking a life at the end or unborn," Ponnet said.
Major donors to the campaign supporting Proposition 34 have included wealthy Silicon Valley figures who might not agree with the Catholic Church's stance on abortion rights. But Ponnet said there's been very little friction among members of the death penalty opposition coalition over the issue.
Death penalty opposition has "brought people together who might disagree on immigration or abortion or health care or other issues," he said. "We agree on this and next week we might be in debate on another topic."
Prejean said opposition to the death penalty "gets to the heart of what every spiritual tradition is" -- being able to see other people as human beings, no matter how guilty.
"In order to kill somebody, you have to turn a switch that that person isn't human like the rest of us, and it's okay for us to kill them," she said.
Prejean, 73, has accompanied several men to the death chamber. It's a walk she hopes won't happen again in California after the Nov. 6 election.
"Of course we can do it," said Prejean, who has been organizing against the death penalty for decades. "We have to do it."