Supreme Court Halts Texas Execution Over Catholic Chaplain Dispute

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is opposed to the use of capital punishment, and states that those who are dying should be given spiritual care.

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas — The Supreme Court stayed the execution of a man in Texas after the state’s Department of Corrections refused to allow a Catholic priest to be with him in the final moments of his life.

“The District Court should promptly determine, based on whatever evidence the parties provide, 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,” said the Supreme Court in its statement issuing the stay of execution on June 16.

Ruben Gutierrez, a Catholic, had requested that the Catholic chaplain at the prison join him in the execution chamber at his death. This request was denied, due to a Texas policy instituted last year that prohibits chaplains in the execution chamber.

Gutierrez was scheduled to die on Tuesday evening, and his execution was stayed approximately one hour before it was set to begin. On June 9, the Federal District Court in Brownsville, Texas, had initially stayed the execution due to the chaplain issue.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops was one of the many organizations who filed amicus briefs in support of staying or outright canceling Gutierrez’s execution. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is opposed to the use of capital punishment, and states that those who are dying should be given spiritual care.

“Denying a prisoner’s request for a chaplain at the hour of his death represents an egregious rejection of the possibility of forgiveness and redemption while the state commits the violence of an execution,” said Jennifer Carr Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, in a statement published on the organization’s website.

“This assaults the dignity of the human person through the blatant removal of a corporal work of mercy that may give compassionate aid and comfort to an offender who, as a final act, is seeking God's forgiveness,” said Allmon.

“To deny a prisoner facing imminent execution access to spiritual and religious guidance and accompaniment is cruel and inhuman. It is an affront to the moral and religious dimensions of human dignity, which are clearly protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution,” said Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville. Bishop Flores serves as the advisor to Catholic Mobilizing Network, an anti-death penalty organization.

Gutierrez was sentenced to death for the 1988 murder of Escolastica Harrison, an 85-year-old woman, during an attempted robbery. One of his accomplices was sentenced to life in prison; the other jumped bail and remains a fugitive at large.

He has never confessed to the crime and has maintained his innocence.

Last year, Texas banned all prison chaplains, of any creed or denomination, from being present in the execution chamber. This came after the Supreme Court stopped the execution of a Buddhist man named Patrick Murphy, who had requested a Buddhist chaplain to be with him during his execution. Previously, the Texas prison system only permitted state employees to be in the execution chamber, and the system did not employ any Buddhist chaplains. The state only employs Christian and Muslim chaplains.

In March 2019, Justice Brett Kavanaugh authored a concurring opinion on why the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had violated Murphy’s rights.

Kavanaugh said that that allowing only Christian and Muslim ministers to be present with death row inmates in the execution chamber was discriminatory, suggesting that a more just resolution would be that no chaplains be permitted in the execution chamber and instead they be allowed to sit in the viewing area.

To avoid discrimination, Kavanaugh said at the time, the Texas prison system should either allow chaplains of all faiths into the execution chamber or else not allow any chaplains at all.

Texas opted for the latter approach, and in April 2019 announced that all chaplains would have to observe the execution from a viewing area, rather than in the chamber.

Chris Pagliarella, an attorney at religious liberty law firm Becket, told CNA June 17 that Texas policy does not respect the First Amendment.

“As Mr. Gutierrez’s lawyers and the Texas Catholic Bishops told the Court, the First Amendment and civil rights law guarantee more than ‘equality’ that deprives all religions equally. They guarantee the rights of religious communities to minister to their members, especially when it comes to ancient practices like the comfort of clergy at death.”