On June 16, 2020, a Texas death-row inmate was hours away from his execution when the United States Supreme Court halted the procedure. Ruben Gutierrez had asked Texas to provide access to a Christian chaplain in his last moments before death but had been refused by the prison administration. Gutierrez filed an emergency order before the Court, arguing that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment should guarantee the free exercise of religion, even for those in prison and especially for those about to meet their Maker.
Spiritual Comfort– for some or for none
Texas has a long tradition of allowing chaplains in the death chamber. It all changed when Texas refused the request of spiritual comfort to Buddhist prisoner Patrick Henry Murphy, a right that had been afforded to other prisoners through state-employed chaplains. On March 28, 2019, the United States Supreme Court granted a stay in Mr. Murphy’s execution, noting that Texas’ actions were a “governmental discrimination against religion” and violated the Constitution.
Unfortunately, instead of allowing different kinds of spiritual advisors in the death chamber, Texas responded to its Supreme Court loss in the Murphy case by eliminating all use of chaplains in the last moments of death. This went against years of tradition, where spiritual guidance had been safely given to the condemned for decades. Now, no Texas prisoner could receive that pastoral care before death.
Need of Clergy for the Condemned
However, federal law supports the idea that all people of all faiths should be able to practice their faith freely, a right that should not be refused once someone enters the prison cell. Mr. Gutierrez only requested the services of state-employed chaplains, the chaplains that have ministered to Texas state prisoners for decades. Texas denied the request due to what it said were safety concerns, but in the previous year, Texas told the Supreme Court that their chaplains could be trusted in the most difficult circumstances in the death chamber.
After staying the execution in June 2020, the United States Supreme Court sent the case back down to the Texas district court and asked the lower court to figure out “whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution.” The lower court concluded that Texas had no compelling interest in preventing access to the clergy and on January 25, 2021, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s decision that Texas could deny Mr. Gutierrez a chaplain.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Individual Freedom: Religion is an innate human desire, and all individuals regardless of their legal status deserve protection of their constitutional right to practice and adhere to their faith.
- RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.