Interfaith clergy, including leaders in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, released a statement July 23 calling on the state of Texas to drop its ban on prison chaplains from its execution chamber, imposed after the United States Supreme Court ruled that the state could not execute an inmate without allowing a Buddhist chaplain to be in the room at his time of death.
More than 180 faith leaders from both Christian and non-Christian traditions said providing condemned persons with spiritual comfort in their final moments “is a small but vital form of human compassion in an otherwise dehumanizing process.” Placing the chaplain or spiritual adviser behind glass in an adjacent viewing room, they said, “is no substitute for this direct ministry.”
“It is my hope that the Correctional Institutions Division will restore the sacred tradition of allowing a chaplain to be present in the execution room to minister to the condemned, and that the chaplain could be of that person’s religious choice,” said signer Rick McClatchy, field coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas.
Prior to the policy change April 3, according to the Texas Tribune, Texas Department of Criminal Justice chaplains were permitted to accompany the prisoner into the death chamber, often standing at the foot of the gurney and resting a hand on the inmate while engaging in silent prayer.
Then the Supreme Court halted the execution of a convicted cop killer who claimed the state was violating his religious rights by not allowing him to have a Buddhist chaplain in the room at the time of his scheduled death.
In a concurring opinion March 28, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the old Texas policy allowing a Christian or Muslim inmate to have a state-employed religious adviser present for the execution and not providing the same service to a Buddhist is “denominational discrimination.”
Kavanaugh suggested two options: either allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their faith in the execution room or place all religious advisers – state employed or otherwise – in a separate viewing room for media, family and friends. Texas chose the latter.
Tuesday’s letter said the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s decision to remove chaplains from the execution chamber not only harms prisoner but also infringes on the religious liberty rights of chaplains and spiritual advisers.
“Clergy have the right to minister to those who have placed themselves in their care, up to and including the moment of death,” the statement said. “The state cannot, and should not attempt to, regulate spiritual solace. Placing a wall between a prisoner and clergy violates the religious liberty that has characterized our nation since its founding.”
“I belong to a faith tradition which values the practice of ministering to the executed,” McClatchy said. “It was Jesus who modeled this type of ministry to the men being executed with him. My American civic values also lead me to believe that even those condemned to death and the faith leaders who advise them are guaranteed the right to the free exercise of religion.”
Other Baptist signers include Marv Knox, field coordinator of Fellowship Southwest; CBF field personnel Butch Green; and Jeni Cook, former national deputy director of chaplains for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The statement and full list of signatories is here.
Texas has 10 executions scheduled this year between Aug. 15 and Nov. 6. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report July 23 showing that while capital punishment has declined overall in the United States for 17 years in a row, imposition of the death penalty is concentrated in a handful of states.
Texas led the pack with seven executions in 2017, followed by Arkansas with four, Alabama and Florida with three each, Ohio and Virginia with two and one each in Missouri and Georgia.
“Texas is still the big driver of all the execution activity, because Texas is the one state that puts a lot of people on death row and actually executes them,” Lee Kovarsky, a law professor at the University of Maryland, explained in the Wall Street Journal.
Kovarsky said in states that still have a death penalty, capital cases tend to be concentrated in larger counties, because it has gotten so expensive both to produce a death sentence and to carry it out.