updated 11:44 am - LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A Roman Catholic bishop who has led prayers at Arkansas anti-abortion rallies says he will not take part this year because its featured speaker is a public official who actively pushed for the state's aggressive execution schedule last year.
Bishop Anthony Taylor wrote an open letter to the state's 125,000 Catholics inviting them to special Masses instead of attending the event featuring Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
"Arkansas Right to Life has chosen as the keynote speaker for the Rally a person who has good anti-abortion credentials but otherwise is decidedly not an appropriate pro-life speaker," Taylor wrote. He said Rutledge "worked tirelessly to secure the execution of 4 criminals who posed no further threat to society."
Arkansas executed four men in eight days last April after Gov. Asa Hutchinson initially scheduled eight executions in 11 days — adopting a quick turnaround so the men could be put to death before one of the state's three lethal injection drugs expired. Rutledge's office fought in court to preserve the schedule.
"The Diocese of Little Rock was very vocal in appealing for clemency for these four men, but we were opposed at every turn by Attorney General Rutledge," Taylor wrote to his flock.
Three of the eight condemned inmates won stays and Hutchinson granted clemency to a fourth condemned prisoner. Four were put to death.
Rutledge did not comment specifically on Taylor's criticism.
"I look forward to being the keynote at this year's March for Life and encourage anyone interested in protecting the sanctity of life for the unborn to participate," she said in a statement emailed from her office.
Sunday's rally is the 40th annual protest. One of Taylor's predecessors, Bishop Andrew J. McDonald, was among its early supporters. Taylor gave the opening prayer at last year's rally and has offered prayers at others. The march is typically held on a Sunday nearest the Jan. 22 anniversary of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
"The Church teaches a consistent ethic of life in which human life and human dignity must be protected from the first moment of conception to natural death and every stage in between," Taylor wrote Wednesday. "Even people who have been sentenced to death deserve this dignity, which is why capital punishment must be abolished."
The march's organizer, Arkansas Right to Life, said it was a "single-issue organization" dedicated to stopping abortion.
"We hope that everyone who shares our views, that innocent children should be protected, will support and attend the March, regardless of their views on other issues in which Arkansas Right to Life does not take a stand," its executive director, Rose Mimms, said in an emailed statement.