Condemned child killer Robert Glen Coe was executed by injection Wednesday, the first evening of Passover and four days before Easter.
"How ironic that during a week in which we celebrate the merciful nature of God and a God willing to die for his people, that a court extends no mercy and in fact chooses to take a life for a life," said David Buttrick, a professor at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville.
The justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court acted expeditiously, choosing a date one week from when a federal court lifted Coe's stay of execution, said court spokeswoman Sue Allison. But religious leaders say the timing shows insensitivity and even indifference to the state's people, culture and beliefs.
Gov. Don Sundquist, who has refused to grant clemency for Coe, would not comment on the timing.
For Christians, the week before Easter is traditionally a time of worship services, church-produced passion plays and Easter egg hunts for children-- culminating in a Sunday celebration of Jesus Christ's resurrection from the dead.
For Jews, Passover begins at sundown Wednesday with the Seder meal. Perhaps the most celebrated of Jewish holidays, Passover commemorates the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.
"The sadness and irony cannot be lost on anyone that the state should participate in the taking of a life as Christians prepare for the recognition and resurrection of their Messiah, and Jews around the world are commemorating religious freedom and God's lifting us out of slavery," said Rabbi Ken Kanter of Nashville's Congregation Micah.
Members of both faiths joined protests this week, including ecumenical worship services sponsored by the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing and a prayer vigil Tuesday evening outside Nashville's Riverbend Maximum Security Prison.
A state Supreme Court gave the final approval for the execution early Wednesday, overruling a lower court that had issued a temporary injunction over the execution method. Coe, 44, was sentenced to die for the 1979 murder and rape of 8-year-old Cary Ann Medlin in the small west Tennessee town of Greenfield. Prosecutors said he lured the girl into his car, raped her and killed her after she told him "Jesus loves you."
He originally was scheduled to die last October, but stays of execution were granted three times as part of Coe's appeals.
His lawyers argued that Coe was insane and that executing him would violate his constitutional rights. Last week, they asked the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider Coe's competency and Tennessee's method for determining it.
While some death penalty supporters regret the timing of the execution date, they say two decades of legal wrangling aren't fair to the girl's family and weaken the state's enforcement of capital punishment.
"We have separation of church and state in this country, and one particular religious belief doesn't affect the principle of the law," said state Rep. Frank Buck, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
Last year in Missouri, Gov. Mel Carnahan commuted a convicted killer's death sentence whose execution would have coincided with Pope John Paul II's visit to St. Louis. Carnahan reiterated last month that it was a "one-time thing" that was appropriate because the pope had made a personal plea for mercy.
Tennessee, which has 95 men and two women on death row, is the only Southern state that has not executed anyone since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.
Legal scholars have said protests from a vocal minority of religious leaders are partly responsible, adding further irony to the timing of this week's execution.
"The truth is there's just no good day, no good week and no good year to do this," said Harmon Wray, a death penalty opponent from Nashville.