Religion Clause: Texas Prisons Must Adopt Formal Policy on Religious Rights in Execution Chamber

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

In Barbee v. Collier, (SD TX, Nov. 3, 2022), an inmate whose execution had been scheduled sought a court order from a Texas federal district requiring Texas to allow his spiritual advisor to be present with him in the execution chamber, to pray audibly with him and have physical contact with him, holding his hand, to confer a blessing on him. The Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice filed a series of affidavits assuring the court that these requests would be granted and moved dismiss the lawsuit as moot. The court, however, was unconvinced, saying in part:

Religion Clause: Texas Prisons Must Adopt Formal Policy on Religious Rights in Execution Chamber

In Ramirez [v.  Collier], the Supreme Court encouraged States to “adopt clear rules” and “streamlined procedures” that would protect an inmate’s religious rights in the execution chamber…. TDCJ has not responded by enacting any formal policy guaranteeing religious expression in the execution chamber. Instead, TDCJ has left in place an official execution protocol that contains provisions describing the presence, approval process, and vetting requirements for spiritual advisors. Hence, the 2021 protocol is silent as to what a spiritual advisor may do, if anything, inside the execution chamber.,,, 

TDCJ has apparently left the question of what a spiritual advisor may do to the discretion of prison officials…. Until quite recently, TDCJ officials interpreted the silence in the official protocol to prohibit any physical touch or audible prayer in the execution chamber. Now, TDCJ would have the Court accept their latest pronouncement that the same provisions may be read to allow physical contact and audible prayer…. TDCJ officials have initiated a practice of allowing physical contact and audible prayer when the requests are sufficiently timely and permit security checks.

However, the defendants have not specifically formalized in a policy or otherwise described what the basis is for it unwritten practice….

[TDJC] has been encouraged by the highest court in the land to develop a policy that can be reviewed.  The stubbornness of TDCJ to enact a policy that removes all discretion, except in critical instances, militates against extending the lesser burden to TDCJ.

The court entered a Preliminary Injunction that provides:

Texas [TDCJ] may proceed with the execution of Stephen Barbee on November 16, 2022, only after it publishes a clear policy that has been approved by its governing policy body that (1) protects an inmate’s religious rights in the execution chamber and (2) sets out any exceptions to that policy, further describing with precision what those exceptions are or may be.

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