Gov. Bill Haslam avoided stating his personal views about execution when Capitol Hill reporters questioned him last week about his decision to sign a bill expanding use of the electric chair. But he couldn't escape saying more when confronted Tuesday by the young women who attended the American Legion Auxiliary Volunteer Girls State conference in Nashville.
Responding to a high school student who pointedly described the death penalty as "inhumane" and an inefficient use of taxpayer money, Haslam conceded that moral and economic arguments could be made against capital punishment. But he said he respects voters' and lawmakers' decision to have the death penalty.
"A lot of us sitting here go, that sounds incredibly cruel and barbaric to say as a human you're going to take another's life," he said. "And that is a very valid, valid philosophical position to take. But you do have to remember that a lot of the crimes – almost all of the crimes -- that people are on death row for are horrific."
The next questioner pressed the governor equally hard on same-sex marriage, arguing gay and lesbian couple should not have "their human rights determined by public opinion." Haslam responded he had to enforce will of the people.
"Tennessee actually put that to a vote," he said. "Until a judge rules that law is unconstitutional or until there's a different vote, our obligation is to enforce the law. That's what the people of Tennessee and the legislature voted for."
The governor praised both young women, quipping, "I've never, ever come here and thought, these are marshmallow questions."
"Just the first two questions that you've heard shows how tough issues are," he said. "Even in this room, if I talk about same-sex marriage or capital punishment, you would see a wide divergence in opinion.
"It's one of the things that makes leadership so hard, because you're dealing with people who have strong feelings about issues that matter. ... Those are both big deals in themselves. So learning how to govern and lead in a society with very divergent opinions is one of the most difficult things."