- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2019

A group of faith leaders across Texas are calling on state corrections officials to allow chaplains back in the execution chamber.

A July 23 letter signed by nearly 200 faith leaders and addressed to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice expresses dismay over the agency’s “new provision” that keeps chaplains out of the 10-by-8-foot cell that houses death row inmates before capital punishment is imposed. Chaplains provide a “small but vital form of human compassion in an otherwise dehumanizing process,” the leaders say.

“The significance of the physical presence of a chaplain at a condemned person’s last moment is difficult to overstate,” reads the letter, signed by Methodist ministers, Catholic sisters, rabbis and imams. “In the State of Texas, death row prisoners are denied contact visitation, touched only by TDCJ personnel, and spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.”

Texas changed its death penalty protocol in April, after Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh issued a last-minute stay for Patrick Murphy, whose request to be joined by his Buddhist spiritual guide in the execution room was denied by Texas officials.

“In this case, the relevant Texas policy allows a Christian or Muslim inmate to have a state-employed Christian or Muslim religious adviser present either in the execution room or in the adjacent viewing room,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote, noting that the state didn’t afford the same option for inmates of any other faith.

Justice Kavanaugh directed state officials to allow spiritual advisers of any faith into the execution chamber or to allow no chaplains into the room. Texas correctional officials adopted the latter.

In a phone call Thursday, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman stood by the policy, saying the chaplain’s role was essentially “nonreligious.”

“The new protocol has been tested and it’s been used,” said spokesman Jeremy Desel. “The presence of a TDCJ chaplain in the holding area is not even primarily of a religious nature, unless that’s something the offender asks for. What they’re doing is to provide a calming presence for the condemned.”

Mr. Desel said Texas employs “practically a whole division” of prison and field ministers in the nation’s largest state prison complex. He said the duties of Christian and Muslim chaplains had consisted of providing drinks and pastries for a final meal or dialing the phone for a last call for the inmate.

Texas does not employ a Buddhist chaplain, he added, noting that a Buddhist adviser was in the viewing room adjacent to the execution chamber the night the Supreme Court issued a stay for Murphy.

The Buddhist adviser “was physically there at the unit and physically in the holding area and met with Mr. Murphy,” Mr. Desel said.

Justice Kavanaugh ruled that not allowing advisers all faiths into execution chamber violates the “equal treatment” guarantee of the Constitution.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops “wholeheartedly support allowing chaplains to return to the vital ministry of accompanying prisoners in their final moments in the death chamber,” a spokesperson said in an email, adding that the group was unaware of the July 23 letter.

The group Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty issued a statement saying it worries that religious freedom rights are being stamped out under Texas’ policy.

“It’s pretty shocking,” Hannah Cox, the group’s national manager, said Wednesday. “Hopefully, these inmates would have a chance toe make amends or come to a place of forgiveness.”

In court documents filed last Friday, Murphy’s attorneys underlined the need for a Buddhist to be present in the execution chamber with their client, who they said needs to be focused on Buddha in his last moments to reach the Pure Land.

Murphy sincerely believes chanting with his spiritual adviser when he is executed will help him maintain this focus,” the attorneys said in their request for summary judgment.

Attorneys representing the state asked the judge to dismiss Murphy’s claim.

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