The Story: Texas prisons now prohibit all clergy from the execution chamber. Here’s why Christians should oppose such policies.
The Background: Last week the Supreme Court stopped the execution of a prisoner because the Texas Department of Criminal Justice violated his religious rights by not allowing a Buddhist chaplain into the execution chamber with him. The department only allows prison employees in the death chamber, and only Christian and Muslim clerics are employed with the state.
As Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted in his concurring opinion, “As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion—in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech—violates the Constitution.” But in his opinion Kavanaugh also suggested a solution: Either allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their faith in the execution chamber or allow none of them to have one.
According to The Texas Tribune, the state chose the latter option. In the future chaplains and ministers will be allowed to “observe the execution only from the witness rooms.” Currently, friends and family of the murder victims and prisoners, as well as media, are allowed to watch executions through a glass window in small rooms adjacent to the death chamber, The Tribune says.
Why It Matters: “Texas hit upon perhaps the worst possible solution,” says Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter, who adds, “Such a policy, surely, represents the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment.” Whether or not the policy will pass constitutional scrutiny and whatever we feel about capital punishment, there are three reasons why all Christians should advocate for the condemned to have ministers available during their execution.
1. It’s a violation of our religious rights.
The State of Texas is setting a dangerous precedent on religious liberty: To avoid having to respect the rights of some prisoners, they’ll take away the rights of all prisoners. This is the type of violation of our God-given freedoms that we should not allow the state to infringe upon. As Stephen Carter says,
Spiritual solace is not the state’s to regulate, and clergy confined to the viewing room can’t play the same role as clergy nearer by. The religious leader who comforts the criminal facing death is like Kipling’s “Thousandth Man,” who stays by your side to the gallows’ foot. Putting a wall between prisoner and comforter is exactly what a civilized society should strive to avoid.
2. The dying deserve a comforter.
At the most important state execution in the history of the world, the dying man had his friends available to provide comfort (John 19:25-26). We should want the same for all people—especially for our fellow Christians—no matter what their previous crimes or sins. Because of security reasons it would not be prudent to allow just anyone into the execution chamber. But chaplains are trained in how to conduct themselves in a way that won’t interfere with the process. There is no justifiable reason to deny the presence of a chaplain to Christians facing imminent execution.
3. It may impede rehabilitation.
As I’ve written before, a primary reason Christians have historically supported capital punishment in America is for the rehabilitation of the murderer through redemption. One of the definitions offered by the Oxford English Dictionary for the term “rehabilitation” is “improvement of the moral state of a person, the soul, etc.” As Meghan J. Ryan, a professor of law at Southern Methodist University, explains, when the death penalty was first imposed in this country, it was meant to encourage offenders’ repentance.
Law professor Stuart Banner, author of The Death Penalty: An American History, adds that “[c]apital punishment was . . . understood in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to facilitate the criminal’s repentance,” and that “[i]n this respect a death sentence was of inestimable value.”
“Even men condemned to die were still valued as children of God,” Banner says, “who could at least symbolically achieve reintegration into society.” He also writes there was “a consensus about the importance of the criminal’s salvation” to be secured by the power of the impending execution to focus an offender’s attention on his redemption.
This “rehabilitation through redemption” was integral to the way the death penalty was carried out. Ryan observes that, “The offender’s rehabilitation was so central to the reasoning behind capital punishment in early America that the authorities afforded capital offenders a rather significant period of time before the sentence was carried out so that the offenders had opportunity to repent.”
Today, inmates spend approximately 13 years on death row before their executions. “During this extensive period, they have little to do other than contemplate their deaths and how they arrived at this place,” Ryan says. “This is a time during which one might see a transformation in capital offenders.”
Most prisoners will have likely decided to embrace or reject Christ before they enter the execution chamber. But we should still hold out hope they’ll repent in the final moments before their death. Because eternal fate is at stake, we should want them to have someone in the room who can proclaim the gospel one last time before it’s too late.