Baptists call for chaplains to be allowed in execution chamber

The Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, commonly known as the Walls Unit, houses the state’s execution chamber. (

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HUNTSVILLE—At least 10 Baptists endorsed an interfaith statement urging the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reconsider a policy that bars chaplains from the execution chamber.

“Clergy have the right to minister to those who have placed themselves in their care, up to and including the moment of death,” the letter to TDCJ officials 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.”

More than 180 faith leaders representing at least a dozen religious traditions signed the letter asking the TDCJ to permit chaplains of all faith into the death chamber at the request of condemned inmates. While they noted a diversity of opinion about the death penalty itself, the religious leaders presented a unified front in urging the state to allow chaplains in the execution chamber.

“Our concerns are moral, ethical, and rooted in our nation’s constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion, even for those condemned to death and the faith leaders who advise them,” said the letter to Lorie Davis, director of the TDCJ Correctional Institutions Division.

Copies also were sent to other TDCJ officials—Bryan Collier, executive director; Jeremy Desel, director of communications; and Timothy Jones, deputy director of religious services, which includes the chaplaincy department.

‘Small but vital form of human compassion’

Baptists who endorsed the call for change included Joe Brake from Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio; Jeni Cook, a retired federal chaplain from Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio; Butch Green, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in Houston; Michael Gregg, pastor of Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas; Marv Knox, field coordinator of Fellowship Southwest and member of Valley Ranch Baptist Church in Coppell; Rick McClatchy, field coordinator CBF Texas and member of Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio; C. Clay Pickens from Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston; Tim Schaefer from Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas; Carolyn Strickland from Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas; and Garrett Vickrey, pastor of Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio.

They joined Buddhist, Catholic, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalian, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, non-denominational Christian, Presbyterian, Reform Judaism, United Church of Christ and United Methodist faith leaders in urging the TDJC to reconsider a policy the agency adopted earlier this year.

“The significance of the physical presence of a chaplain at a condemned person’s last moment is difficult to overstate. 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,” the religious leaders stated in the letter.

“The physical companionship of a chaplain in the execution chamber is a small but vital form of human compassion in an otherwise dehumanizing process. The presence of a chaplain or spiritual adviser in the viewing room is no substitute for this direct ministry.”

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Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, echoed the concerns raised by the faith leaders.

“Texas’ decision is an assault on the sacred conservative principle of religious liberty,” Cox said. “The right to exercise one’s faith should not be denied to any American, including those condemned to death. Government interference in the practice of religion should not be tolerated, and clergy of all faiths should be allowed at executions in Texas.”

Policy changed in April

On April 2, TDCJ’s Correctional Institutions Division published a revised execution procedure that removed all chaplains from the execution chamber. The change came just days after the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the March 28 execution of Patrick Murphy, based on his complaint of religious discrimination.

TDCJ had denied Murphy’s request to have a Buddhist priest with him during his execution, noting only its own Christian and Muslim chaplains were allowed to be present in the chamber.

“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,” McClatchy said.

“I belong to a faith tradition which values the practice of ministering to the executed.  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.”

Texas has 10 executions scheduled from Aug. 15 through Nov. 6, 2019. Last year, Texas accounted for 13 of the 25 executions in the United States.

To date this year, Texas has carried out three of the 10 executions nationwide. Four other scheduled executions, including that of Patrick Murphy, were stayed by state or federal courts.

Since 1982, Texas has executed 561 people. Only John King—the last person put to death in Texas, on April 24—was denied the right to have a chaplain present in his last moments.

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