By / Apr 28

Sexual abuse in the nation’s federal prisons must be rooted out, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, the Justice Department’s second-highest-ranking leader, recently told prison wardens gathered for a nationwide training event. 

“This is urgent, urgent work,” Monaco told the Associated Press (AP) in an interview. “It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to call that out and make those changes and really be vigilant about it.”

According to the news agency, Peters was hired last year after her predecessor resigned amid mounting pressure from Congress following AP investigations that exposed widespread corruption and misconduct within the prison system. 

Sexual abuse in American prisons is a deeply disturbing issue that continues to fester within the correctional system, despite the enactment of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003. As followers of Christ, we are called to care for the marginalized and oppressed, and this includes our brothers and sisters behind bars. This article examines the severity of the problem, the factors contributing to its persistence, and the ways in which Christians can engage in solutions grounded in our faith and God’s love.

The scope of the problem

Sexual abuse in American prisons is a grievous sin that affects countless incarcerated individuals. According to a 2018 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 13.5 allegations of sexual victimization per 1,000 prison inmates and 11.9 per 1,000 jail inmates. This translates to tens of thousands of people suffering from this dehumanizing trauma each year.

Both fellow inmates and correctional staff perpetrate these heinous acts. Of the 1,673 substantiated incidents of sexual victimization in 2018, about 58% were perpetrated by other inmates and 42% by staff. The power dynamics and lack of accountability within prisons often fosters an environment where abuse frequently goes unpunished. Many victims are reluctant to report incidents due to fear of retaliation or the belief that their complaints will be disregarded.

Factors contributing to the prevalence of sexual abuse

Several factors contribute to the high prevalence of sexual abuse in American prisons, including:

Overcrowding: The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, leading to overcrowded and understaffed prisons. Overcrowding exacerbates tensions and increases the likelihood of violence, including sexual assault. It also hampers the ability of correctional staff to effectively monitor inmate behavior and intervene in potentially abusive situations.

Lack of training and oversight: Many correctional officers receive inadequate training on how to identify and respond to sexual abuse. In some cases, they may be unaware of their responsibilities under PREA or may choose to disregard them. The lack of external oversight can also foster an environment in which abuse is tolerated or even encouraged.

Inmate vulnerability: Certain populations are at a heightened risk for sexual victimization, including young inmates and those with mental illnesses. These inmates may be targeted due to their perceived vulnerability or social isolation, making it even more challenging for them to report abuse and receive support.

Retaliation and fear of reporting: Victims often fear retaliation from their abusers or other inmates, discouraging them from reporting incidents. Additionally, they may be concerned that their complaints will not be taken seriously or that they will face further abuse from staff members.

What Christians can do to help

As followers of Christ, we must not turn a blind eye to this crisis but rather engage in solutions grounded in our faith and God’s love. Some possible ways to help include:

Advocating for alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders: Christians can support and advocate for alternative sentencing options, such as community service, drug rehabilitation programs, and mental health treatment, when appropriate and safe in order to help reduce the prison population and alleviate overcrowding. This approach aligns with the Christian belief in redemption and the power of transformative change.

Encouraging training and oversight: Christians can call for comprehensive training of correctional staff on the identification and prevention of sexual abuse, as well as their obligations under PREA. Additionally, Christians can advocate for independent oversight bodies to monitor compliance with these regulations and hold institutions accountable for addressing incidents of abuse.

Offering spiritual support and advocacy: Churches and faith-based organizations can offer spiritual support to vulnerable inmates, providing them with a sense of community and protection. These organizations can also advocate for policies and procedures that protect vulnerable inmates from sexual victimization.

Promoting a culture of abuse-reporting and victim-supporting: Christians can encourage prisons to create environments in which inmates feel safe reporting incidents of sexual abuse. This can be achieved by implementing confidential reporting mechanisms, ensuring that complaints are taken seriously, and providing appropriate support services for victims. Additionally, churches and faith-based organizations can offer spiritual and emotional support to survivors of sexual abuse, helping them find healing and forgiveness through Jesus.

Addressing staff-perpetrated abuse: We can advocate for thorough background checks on prospective employees, ongoing training on professional boundaries and ethics, and clear procedures for reporting and investigating allegations of staff misconduct. By pushing for a zero-tolerance policy for those found guilty, we can demonstrate our commitment to justice and the dignity of all individuals.

Fostering a culture of rehabilitation and restoration: By promoting a focus on rehabilitation and restoration within the prison system, the Church can help reduce violence, including sexual abuse. Emphasizing the importance of personal growth, and accountability, we can create safer environments that align with the teachings of Christ.

Christ’s love in the darkest places

The issue of sexual abuse in American prisons is a stark reminder of the fallen nature of our world and the need for Christ’s love to be present in even the darkest of places. As followers of Jesus, we are called to stand up against injustice and advocate for the marginalized and oppressed. As it is written in Proverbs 31:8-9, “Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed. Speak up, judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy.” By engaging in solutions grounded in our faith, we can work toward a more just and compassionate prison system that respects the human rights and dignity of all individuals, regardless of their past mistakes. 

By / Apr 24

In less than two months, 13 students in Nashville, North Carolina, will don caps and gowns and walk across a stage. Before their loved ones and college faculty and staff, they will receive diplomas and embark on a new season as graduates. However, unlike many others graduating this spring, their regalia will be worn over uniforms issued by the North Carolina Department of Adult Corrections, the stage erected in a prison gym, and the new season will take place within the confines of the state correctional system.

The 13 graduates will be awarded a Bachelor of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from The College at Southeastern, the undergraduate affiliate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS). Soon after they walk across the stage, they will be deployed in teams to prisons across the state as part of the North Carolina Field Minister Program (NCFMP).

A prayer for prison ministry answered

The NCFMP began training incarcerated individuals in August 2016 but existed in the minds and prayers of its partners long before. The need for a sustainable moral rehabilitation program within the North Carolina prison system was brought to the attention of Joe Gibbs, current NASCAR team owner and former NFL coach, through the prison ministry work of his non-profit organization Game Plan for Life (GPL). GPL aims to facilitate “inside-out” change within the system through education and spiritual preparation. Gibbs looked to the success of the prison education program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary by New Orleans Seminary and Southwestern Seminary’s field ministry program in Darrington, Texas. He shared the seminaries’ visions for long-term change and sought to recreate the field minister model in North Carolina by partnering with SEBTS and the North Carolina Department of Adult Corrections (NCDAC).

In God’s providence, Daniel Akin, president of SEBTS, had been praying for nearly a decade for the opportunity to begin such a program. Akin and SEBTS were eager to train field ministers, North Carolina was hopeful to see transformation within the prison system, and GPL was ready to actively facilitate the work. Thus, an agreement was formed between these three partners, and classes began at Nash Correctional Institute in Nashville, North Carolina, in the fall of 2016.

Since the onset of the program, two cohorts have graduated from The College at Southeastern as part of the NCFMP. The third is set to cross the stage in June. Each fall, approximately 30 men incarcerated at prisons across the state are accepted into the program and transferred to the Nash Correctional Institute to take courses. To be eligible for the program, individuals must have a minimum of 12 years remaining on their sentence and meet admissions requirements unique to the NCFMP, including essays about their faith background and recommendation forms from prison representatives and volunteers.

The work of field ministers

Professors from The College at Southeastern travel daily to the prison and provide face-to-face instruction. Incarcerated students take the same courses and ultimately receive the same, fully accredited degree offered to traditional students on campus. They receive a rigorous liberal arts education designed to train students in pastoral care.

Soon after graduation, the new alumni are teamed up in groups of four and deployed to one of North Carolina’s 53 prisons. Currently, 11 prisons have a team of field ministers serving within their walls. 

According to Cody Evans, assistant director of Prison Programs at SEBTS, “The hope is to one day have a team of field ministers in every prison in North Carolina so that they can help those who are incarcerated move in the direction of rehabilitation and find new life in Christ.”

During their studies and after deployment, a field minister serves their incarcerated community and assigned facility as a cultural asset by modeling restorative practices within the prison culture. Evans explained that the field ministers are equipped to serve in five areas of ministry: 

  • community service, 
  • counseling, 
  • crisis ministry, 
  • faith-based ministry.,
  • and education. 

The activities they take part in include:

  • leading NCDAC approved self-improvement courses, 
  • facilitating orientation for those being processed into the system, 
  • providing group and individual counseling,
  • and leading Bible studies and discipleship groups. 

Field ministers also function as a bridge between their fellow inmates and both mental health services and prison chaplains. Because of the positive correlation between education and moral rehabilitation, field ministers are even being trained to assist with academic programming within the justice system.

To date, 36 men have been trained and sent out into the prisons of North Carolina to bring hope and promote flourishing within the difficult context of the justice system. Those who participate in the program often do so out of a desire to improve themselves but ultimately become conduits of improvement through Christ for those incarcerated with them. 

The North Carolina Field Minister Program has impacted those who serve as field ministers as well as those who facilitate it. Reflecting on his time serving in this extension of theological education, Evans stated, “It is rewarding to see how education and spiritual preparation transforms people who are often forgotten. Our God is a God of second chances, and He works in forgotten and difficult contexts.” 

And so do the field ministers in prisons of North Carolina: ambassadors of hope, equipped and sent out to point those often forgotten to the God of second chances.

By / Apr 21

Chelsea Sobolik welcomes David Jimenez, manager of government affairs for Prison Fellowship. They discuss what Second Chance month is and why it is important for churches and communities to remember those in prison. They also discuss ongoing efforts to reform our prison and criminal justice systems in ways that promote the biblical ideas of justice, proportionality, and human dignity – without compromising public safety.

Guest Biography

David Jimenez serves as the manager of government affairs for Prison Fellowship’s advocacy and public policy team, where he oversees federal and state legislative campaigns. His background is in public policy advocacy and institution building, most recently as a primary manager for the American Enterprise Institute’s outreach to college students, faculty, and administrators. As an undergraduate at Bowdoin College in Maine, Jimenez studied history and political theory. After graduating, he participated in the Hudson Institute’s Political Studies Fellowship and was a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Romania.

A proud alumnus of Prison Fellowship’s internship program, he first became passionate about criminal justice reform while serving urban youth in New Jersey, where he saw up close the urgent need for restorative approaches to incarceration, law enforcement, and violence. He is passionate about theology, social policy, ethics, and culture. A Pittsburgh native, Jimenez lives in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Apr 8

On March 31, President Biden declared April to be Second Chance Month. In his proclamation, Biden said that Second Chance Month is a time for us to “reaffirm the importance of helping people who were formerly incarcerated reenter society.  America is a Nation of second chances, and it is critical that our criminal and juvenile justice systems provide meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation and redemption.”

Approximately 1 in 3 Americans have a criminal record that creates barriers for their access to education, housing, jobs, and other resources that are essential to successfully reintegrating into society, causing nearly 75% of formerly incarcerated individuals to still be unemployed a year after their release. Second Chance Month is an important opportunity for our nation, communities, and churches to become aware of these roughly 44,000 documented barriers to reentry and commit to helping our formerly incarcerated neighbors pursue full lives as contributing members of our society. 

A history of Second Chance Month

Second Chance Month was first observed by Prison Fellowship in 2017 to “raise awareness of the barriers faced by returning citizens and to unlock second chances for these men and women who dream of a better tomorrow.” Later in April 2017, the United States Senate unanimously passed a resolution for the first time declaring April 2017 as Second Chance Month.

In 2018, President Trump issued the first presidential proclamation recognizing April as Second Chance Month. Since then, a presidential proclamation has been issued each year by both the Trump and Biden administrations. Additionally, the U.S. House and Senate have continued to introduce resolutions marking the month, and many states have issued their own proclamations each year.

A history of presidential proclamations

There is some debate as to what was the first presidential proclamation. Many believe that the first came from George Washington in June of 1789 when he asked for an accounting from each cabinet head of the activities of their departments. The second came in October of that year designating for “the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness” to be held at the end of November. Others argue that the first proclamation came in 1793 when Washington declared the United States neutral in the war between England and France. Perhaps, the most well-known use of a proclamation came from Abraham Lincoln in 1863 when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The legal basis for executive orders and proclamations has been debated since the beginning of our nation due to the ambiguity around executive authority given to the president in the Constitution. Generally, presidents have used Article II which states that “the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States” and that “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” There are not clear distinctions on what constitutes an executive order versus a proclamation. The Library of Congress notes that generally executive orders are directed toward government officials and agencies and more often have the actual force of law, if the topic is “founded on the authority of the President derided from the Constitution or statute;” whereas, proclamations tend to deal with individuals, are more ceremonial in nature, and typically do not have the force of law.  

The Office of the Federal Register (OFR), which compiles and publishes all presidential Proclamations, describes these proclamations as ways for the president to communicate “information on holidays, commemorations, special observances, trade, and policy.” During his term, President Trump issued 570 proclamations, and since taking office in 2021, President Biden has issued 225.

Though presidential proclamations might seem performative or unimportant, they serve as important statements of priorities from the president, explaining to the country what his administration values and why it matters to the American people.
The ERLC applauds this proclamation and is committed to caring for our incarcerated neighbors and advocating for policies that reduce incarceration without jeopardizing public safety. As was stated in the 2013 resolution on America’s Growing Prison Population, we affirm “prison chaplains, local church ministries, seminary educational initiatives, and other ministries that serve in prisons and youth detention centers and operate programs that seek to reintegrate prisoners into their communities, and reduce recidivism through moral and spiritual transformation,” and we are working to “urge churches and other ministries to participate in programs that assist prisoners with reintegration into society, including transitional housing, vocational and drug rehabilitation, and family support, heeding the words of Jesus, ‘I was in prison, and you came to visit me’” (Matt. 25:36).

By / Apr 4

Brenna and Grove Norwood have given their lives to remembering those who are in prison (Heb. 13:3) through The Heart of Texas Foundation. Together with their staff, donors, and other partners, Brenna, the director of programs, and Grove, the CEO, watch God transform men and women in the midst of very difficult circumstances. The work is not easy, but it is a testament to what God will do when Christians obey his Word by carrying the gospel to and caring for those among us who are in great need — physically and spiritually. Below, Brenna answers a few questions about prison ministry and how Christ brings light and hope to the darkest of places. 

Lindsay Nicolet: Tell us a little bit about the Heart of Texas Foundation and what led to its inception?

Brenna Norwood: The Heart of Texas Foundation was born out of a desire to serve those who have nothing to give back in return and the literal poor. In the earliest days, it began with Grove asking in every part of the community, “Who is the poorest person you know?” In the process, we began to visit prisons because the Lord clearly commands us to remember the prisoner.

LN: How did the Lord lead you into prison ministry? 

BN: Our church was volunteering in prisons. By going, we began to learn how the church interacts with the corrections system and how the corrections system thinks and works. It became clear that there are prisons within prison, such as the inner prison referred to in Acts 16:24 which Paul and Silas experienced. In addition, most programming offered for the prisoner is understandably focused on men and women who are finishing their sentence. 

Programming and access to men and women in the inner prison and those with long prison sentences remains minimal, yet this is where our work lies. We are occasionally still asked by those we serve who might not yet know the Lord, “Why do you keep coming back?” Our answer truly is in 2 Corinthians 5:13-15, specifically the love of Christ compels and controls us.

LN: The hallmark of your foundation is the Texas Field Ministers program. What comprises this program? 

BN: The Texas Field Ministers Program focuses on men and women with extremely long prison sentences. It consists of two related parts: 1.) Education and 2.) Service. The men and women who are our students in The Heart of Texas Foundation | College of Ministry pursue the Bachelor of Arts in Applied Ministry. Upon graduation, they are sent in teams of two or more to serve as Field Ministers for the remainder of their sentence, an official job title within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that allows them to reach men and women in the inner prison.

LN: What led to the focus of the foundation being education in ministry? Why is this so important? 

BN: Prisons are full of men and women who caused great harm. They are full of men and women who have been the recipients of great harm. The Texas Field Ministers Program allows an entirely new identity to exist for the man or woman with a long prison sentence — an identity other than the crime they committed, the peer-to-peer inmate culture, or the mentality brought on by institutionalization. If a man or woman has a long prison sentence, how can they show that they have met the rehabilitative goals of society or the prison system itself if they are not given the opportunity to display such evidence on a daily basis? The Bachelor of Arts in Applied Ministry takes four and a half years to complete. We developed the 42-course curriculum after 10 years of experience in this work specifically to give men and women time to learn, grow, and prove they can be trusted with an opportunity to serve others as a Texas Field Minister. 

Even though men and women are familiar with the environment they are living in, that alone does not equip them to minister effectively in the storm of trauma and life they run into amongst their peers. To impact the culture of the prison for good and for the Lord, that takes equipment, support, and time met best through excellent Christ-centered education from godly men and women of integrity relying on the Lord for his ultimate work in each student’s life. Our United States Coast Guard, for example, has a rescue helicopter and crew equipped for the most extreme conditions. While they won’t use everything they know in every situation, everything they know will serve them well in any situation. That’s why education — Christ-centered discipleship is important for Texas Field Ministers equipped with the gospel to go into the darkest of places. 

LN: How have you seen the Field Ministers program transform the lives of prisoners? 

BN: Men and women have come to faith in Christ among the student body. Men and women share the good news of Jesus Christ with others in an informed and relational way such that the body of Christ is strengthened in a manner that volunteers alone cannot do. Men and women in the Texas Field Ministers Program have credibility with their peers so long as they maintain a consistent lifestyle. 

The good news of Jesus in the hearts of men and women creates ripple effects of his goodness and order. The men and women we serve consistently begin to reach out to their children in a new and unselfish way (Malachi 4:6; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21). Every crime creates a ripple effect — the victim of the crime, the family of the victim, the family of the perpetrator, and society. Studies show that 7-8 out of 10 children will follow their parent into prison. The gospel can change that. We have witnessed that many, many times.

LN: Why should Christians care about and for prisoners? What does the Bible say about it? 

BN: Four books of the New Testament were written by Paul from prison. The Lord commands us to remember the prisoner in Hebrews 13:3 and sees when we do according to Matthew 25:36. Spiritually speaking, prison is a state that we are all in before Christ according to Galatians 3:22, mercy from which we can only receive from God according to Romans 11:32. We cannot escape the reality of prison. The Lord builds this into every human life. 

When we visit the prisoner in the name of Christ Jesus, his grace is built into that visit so that it is a blessing not just for the one in prison, but for the visitor as well. Prison is an awful, dark place, yet the light of Christ shines brightly there among those who are his. It’s not easy to go. Going has a way of refining all of your deepest held beliefs about life. We have found that only Christ and the work of the cross restores us after each visit.

LN: How would you advise Christians who have a desire to serve in prison ministry but don’t know where to start? 

BN: There are so many faithful men and women in the body of Christ visiting the prisoner without fanfare — just beautifully faithful. Prayerfully ask and seek those who are already doing some of the work. Where you begin might not be where the Lord leads you to serve ultimately. Ask questions. Be willing to learn. Be willing to listen. When you go, respect the authority on the prison unit. You will encounter a broken, slow system, but the prison system has reasons for why they do everything, primarily having to do with safety and security including yours — respect the authority that is there. That authority begins with the newest correctional officer. Expect to serve and not be served from the time you enter the parking lot to the time you leave.

LN: What are some of the misconceptions about and challenges of ministering to prisoners? And how can Christians have a correct view of prison ministry and faithfully steward this calling? 

BN: Misconceptions regarding prisoners are many: 1.) That prisoners are lower in intelligence or in their ability to learn (However, it is true that literacy levels are very low in prison across the population, but literacy is not an intelligence issue. So often, it’s an instructional casualty issue or a casualty of a life of the chaos one did not choose to grow up in.)  2.) That they must all be from the same socioeconomic background and therefore race must not be as big as an issue. Times have changed; if you asked your church family for a show of hands if they have someone in their family who has been incarcerated in the criminal justice system on any level, many hands would go up that might be surprising.

Misconceptions about prison ministry might be summed up in that prison ministry is not for the weird, biker-type Christian or the former drug addict. Every Christian is called to visit the prisoner. Remember those bound in chains. According to Christ, we may very well end up there ourselves just for following him. We can learn a lot from Paul who said that nothing but prison and hardships awaited him. “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). 

LN: What are some of the greatest needs of prisoners, and how can Christians rise up to help meet some of them? 

BN: They need the body of Christ to come and visit them. They need a Field Minister — a mature man or woman of God living beside them who can help them in their greatest hour of need at any time of day. They need the gospel deeply planted in their hearts and minds. They do not need people to feel sorry for them; they need people to love them unselfishly with the love of Christ who keep coming back to visit them — the impact is in the returning.

LN: If someone wanted to start something like this in their area, how would they begin? 

BN: Call us, we would love to talk. 281-850-8103 or [email protected]. You can do it with the Lord’s help and a few careful, prayerful steps. North Carolina, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Texas all have experience; we are colleagues in the work each of us is a part of in our states. We would be glad to connect you with our peers.

By / Mar 24

In an affirmation of religious liberty, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Ramirez v. Collier on March 24 that Mr. Ramirez should be allowed to have his Southern Baptist pastor pray aloud and lay hands on him as he is executed. The court found that Mr. Ramirez “is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims because Texas’s restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the State’s compelling interests.” In this ruling the court reversed and remanded the decision of the Fifth Circuit and provided direction for the lower courts to ensure that Ramirez’s religious liberty is protected in the final moments of his life.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion joined by Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justices Sotomayor and Kavanaugh wrote concurring opinions. Justice Thomas authored the sole dissenting opinion.

This is a significant win for religious liberty and for Ramirez’s ability to have his Southern Baptist pastor in the execution chamber with him, audibly praying and laying hands on him. The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door.

Below are key quotes from both the majority opinion and concurrence as well as Thomas’ dissent, highlighting how the court reached its decision. Page numbers from the court’s decision are given for each quote, but legal citations are omitted for clarity of reading.

For more details on the religious liberty issues present in this case, see our explainer here.

———-

From the Syllabus

“Ramirez alleged that the refusal of prison officials to allow his pastor to lay hands on him in the execution chamber violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment. Ramirez sought preliminary and permanent injunctive relief barring state officials from executing him unless they granted the requested religious accommodation.” (1)

“Ramirez is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims because Texas’s restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the State’s compelling interests.” (2)

“The question before the Court is whether Ramirez’s execution without the requested participation of his pastor should be halted pending full consideration of his claims on a complete record. To obtain the relief Ramirez seeks—relief that the parties agree is properly characterized as a preliminary injunction—Ramirez ‘must establish that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.’ ” (2)

“Given the current record, the State has not shown that it is likely to carry the burden of demonstrating that its refusal to accommodate Ramirez’s religious exercise is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interests.” (3)

“Ramirez is likely to succeed in proving that his religious requests are ‘sincerely based on a religious belief.’ Both the laying on of hands and prayer are traditional forms of religious exercise, and Ramirez’s pastor confirmed that prayer accompanied by touch is a significant part of their shared faith tradition. Neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals doubted that Ramirez had a sincere religious basis for his requests. Texas’s argument to the contrary—which stems from a complaint Ramirez filed in 2020 in which he sought his pastor’s presence and prayer in the chamber, but disclaimed any need for touch—does not outweigh ample evidence of the sincerity of Ramirez’s beliefs. Respondents do not dispute that any burden their policy imposes on Ramirez’s religious exercise is substantial.” (3)

“The Court rejects the prison officials’ threshold contention that Ramirez cannot succeed on his claims because he failed to exhaust all available remedies before filing suit as mandated by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995. In the context of Texas’s grievance system, the Court finds Ramirez properly exhausted administrative remedies. Ramirez tried (unsuccessfully) to resolve the issue informally with a prison chaplain. He then filed a Step 1 grievance requesting that his pastor be allowed to “ ‘lay hands on me’ & pray over me while I am being executed.” Prison officials denied that grievance, and Ramirez timely appealed. His Step 2 grievance reiterated the same requests. Ramirez’s grievances thus ‘clearly stated’ that he wished to have his pastor touch him and pray with him during his execution.” (2)

“Timely resolution of RLUIPA claims in the prisoner context could be facilitated if States were to adopt policies anticipating likely issues and streamlined procedures for resolving requests. It should be the rare RLUIPA capital case that requires last-minute resort to the federal courts.” (5)

“We hold that Ramirez is likely to prevail on the merits of his RLUIPA claims, and that the other preliminary injunction factors justify relief. If Texas reschedules Ramirez’s execution and declines to permit audible prayer or religious touch, the District Court should therefore enter appropriate preliminary relief. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinions” (22)

Majority Opinion: Chief Justice Roberts

“We are persuaded—at least in the current posture of the case—that Ramirez properly exhausted these administrative remedies.” (7)

“Respondents also argue that Ramirez failed to properly exhaust his request for audible prayer in the execution chamber. The gist of their argument is that while his grievances clearly requested prayer, they did not clearly requestaudible prayer. We disagree. Ramirez asked that prison officials permit his pastor to ‘lay hands’ on him and ‘pray over’ him during the execution. While it is true that this language did not explicitly reference ‘audible’ prayer, the language adequately conveyed such a request for several reasons. First, if Ramirez had merely wanted silent prayer, his grievance need not have mentioned prayer at all. He and his pastor could have prayed silently and no one would have been the wiser. Second, praying aloud is a common type of Christian prayer that people engage in together.” (8)

“Ramirez seeks to have his pastor lay hands on him and pray over him during the execution. Both are traditional forms of religious exercise. Pastor Moore, who has ministered to Ramirez for four years, agrees that prayer accompanied by touch is ‘a significant part of our faith tradition as Baptists.’ (10-11)

“As for audible prayer, there is a rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our Nation. For example, at Newgate Prison—one of London’s most notorious jails—an Anglican priest would stand and pray with the condemned in their final moments…Prayer at the time of execution was also commonplace in the American Colonies. And during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington ordered that ‘prisoners under sentence of death’ ‘be attended with such Chaplains, as they choose’—including at the time of their execution…When, for example, the Federal Government executed four members of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the prisoners were accompanied by clergy of various denominations.” (12-13)

Additionally, the balance of equities and public interest tilt in Ramirez’s favor. Ramirez ‘does not seek an open ended stay of execution.’ Rather, he requests a tailored injunction requiring that Texas permit audible prayer and religious touch during his execution. By passing RLUIPA, Congress determined that prisoners like Ramirez have a strong interest in avoiding substantial burdens on their religious exercise, even while confined. At the same time, ‘[b]oth the State and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence. Because it is possible to accommodate Ramirez’s sincere religious beliefs without delaying or impeding his execution, we conclude that the balance of equities and the public interest favor his requested relief.’” (19)

“If States adopt clear rules in advance, it should be the rare case that requires last-minute resort to the federal courts. If such cases do arise and a court determines that relief is appropriate under RLUIPA, the proper remedy is an injunction ordering the accommodation, not a stay of the execution. This approach balances the State’s interest in carrying out capital sentences without delay and the prisoner’s interest in religious exercise.”(21)

“We hold that Ramirez is likely to prevail on the merits of his RLUIPA claims, and that the other preliminary injunction factors justify relief. If Texas reschedules Ramirez’s execution and declines to permit audible prayer or religious touch, the District Court should therefore enter appropriate preliminary relief. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” (22)

Concurring — Justice Sotomayor

“Under the [Prison Litigation Reform Act] PLRA, prison officials and incarcerated individuals share an obligation to act in good faith in resolving disputes: Incarcerated individuals must timely raise their claims through the prison grievance system, and prison officials must ensure that the system is a functioning one. To that end, the PLRA requires incarcerated individuals to exhaust the prison’s administrative grievance process before turning to the courts only where that process is actually ‘available.’” (1)

“Availability is a practical determination that requires considering both whether the administrative system is accessible as designed and whether concurring prison administrators and officers ensure meaningful access to it in practice.” (1-2)

“Timely notice of policies is essential to ensure the ability to timely raise, or seek informal resolution of, any claims related to those policies. It also raises questions that the prison took 39 days to deny Ramirez’s Step 2 grievance, even though the prison had considered and rejected his request previously and maintains that its established policies foreclosed it. Such delay creates an impression, whether valid or not, that the prison is trying to ‘thwart inmates from taking advantage of [the] grievance process’ and cut short their opportunity to obtain judicial review.” (2)

Concurring — Justice Kavanaugh

“The question of religious advisors in the execution room came to this Court three years ago as a question of religious equality. Some States had long permitted state-employed chaplains in the execution room. But those state-employed chaplains were mostly Christian. Those States did not allow inmates to have their own religious advisors in the room. Therefore, a Christian inmate could have the state-employed Christian chaplain in the room, but a Buddhist inmate, for example, could not have a Buddhist religious advisor in the room. The Court correctly determined that this practice constituted unlawful religious discrimination because it treated inmates of different religions differently.” (1)

“Importantly, however, the Court does not merely point to its own policy assessment of how much risk the State must tolerate in the execution room. The Court also relies in part on the history of religious advisors at executions. To be sure, the Court acknowledges that some of the history is not precisely on point because many executions historically were outdoor public hangings where the presence of religious advisors did not raise the same risks to safety, security, and solemnity that their presence in a small execution room does. And some of the other history involved state employed chaplains, who arguably do not raise the same risks to safety, security, and solemnity as outsiders in the execution room. Still, the history generally demonstrates that religious advisors have often been present at executions. And perhaps even more relevant, the Federal Government and some States have recently allowed inmates’ religious advisors into the execution room. Those religious advisors have been allowed to engage in audible prayer and limited touching of the inmate without apparent problems. See ante, at 13–14. As the Court explains, experience matters in assessing whether less restrictive alternatives could still satisfy the State’s compelling interest.” (6)

Dissenting — Justice Thomas

“This Court granted equitable relief in September, and today it grants further relief pending proceedings below. Ramirez presses two reasons why he merited—and continues to merit—our intervention in Texas’ enforcement of his capital sentence. First, he argues that the State would violate RLUIPA by prohibiting his pastor from ‘laying hands’ on him during his execution. Second, he argues that the State would violate the same statute by prohibiting his pastor from audibly praying during the execution. I do not think either claim warranted relief on September 8. Nor do I think either claim warrants further relief now.” (5)

“Because of the prevalence of vexatious death penalty litigation, a court sitting in equity ‘must’ consider whether a condemned criminal has made an ‘attempt at manipulation’ that would disqualify him from equitable relief. Federal courts faced with abusive litigation ‘can and should’ use their ‘equitable powers’ to protect state judgments and sentences.” (7-8)

“Today, this Court should have denied equitable relief to a prisoner who has acted inequitably—as both the District Court and Court of Appeals did before us. Ramirez’s shifting litigation position lays bare what he really wants: ‘to manipulate the judicial process’ to win further delay. The record all but speaks for itself. In August 2020, when Ramirez first demanded that Texas allow his pastor into the chamber, he explicitly avowed that his pastor ‘need not touch’ him ‘at any time in the execution chamber.’ Taking Ramirez at his word, Texas eventually acquiesced. But then Ramirez flipped his position and filed another administrative grievance and §1983 complaint demanding what he had earlier disclaimed: touching in the execution chamber. This is a textbook example of dilatory and abusive ‘piecemeal litigation’ against which we have warned courts in equity to guard. Like Chief Judge Owen, I think that the shift in Ramirez’s litigation posture alone justifies denying equitable relief because it ‘indicates that the change in position is strategic and that delay is the goal.’”(8)

“A court balancing the equities must consider that ‘[b]oth the State and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence.’” (11)

“The equitable balance here tilts decisively in favor of the State and Ramirez’s victims. Texans, acting through their elected representatives, have decided that certain crimes range so far beyond what a civilized society will accept that only a death sentence will suffice. Ramirez long has denied Texas its sovereign interest in seeing that sentence carried out ‘fairly and expeditiously.’” (12)

By / Mar 24

On March 24, in an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that John Ramirez should be allowed to have his Southern Baptist pastor pray aloud and lay hands on him as he is executed. The court found that Ramirez “is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims because Texas’s restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the State’s compelling interests.” In this ruling, the court reversed and remanded the decision of the Fifth Circuit and provided direction for the lower courts to ensure that Ramirez’s religious liberty is protected in the final moments of his life.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justices Sotomayor and Kavanaugh wrote concurring opinions. Justice Thomas authored the sole dissenting opinion.

The decision is a significant affirmation for religious liberty and for Ramirez’s ability to have his Southern Baptist pastor in the execution chamber with him, audibly praying and laying hands on him. The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door.

What is this case about?

This case began in August 2021 when John Ramirez, a Texas inmate who was scheduled to be executed for murder, requested that Dana Moore, his Southern Baptist pastor, be allowed to minister to him while he is executed.  Moore serves the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, of which Ramirez is a member. Ramirez explained that he wanted his pastor “to be present at the time of his execution to pray with him and provide spiritual comfort and guidance in his final moments.” Moore, who has ministered to Ramirez since 2016, agrees that prayer accompanied by touch is “a significant part of our faith tradition as Baptists.”

Prison officials refused to grant Ramirez’s request because, at the time, Texas’s execution protocol barred all spiritual advisors from entering the chamber. Ramirez sued prison officials in response. On Sept. 8, just hours before Ramirez was to be executed for a murder in Corpus Christi, the Supreme Court granted a stay of the execution.

Ramirez asserted that the state’s refusal to allow his pastor to touch him and pray aloud violates both the Constitution and RLUIPA, the federal law that applies to those in prison and guarantees their religious rights will be respected. The question before the court was “whether the government has satisfied its burden under RLUIPA to demonstrate that its blanket prohibition on clergy in the execution chamber engaging in audible prayer or laying on hands is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.”

The Least Restrictive Means test “is a standard imposed by the courts when considering the validity of legislation that touches upon constitutional interests. If the government enacts a law that restricts a fundamental personal liberty, it must employ the least restrictive measures possible to achieve its goal.”

What is RLUIPA, and how does it apply to this case?

RLUIPA stands for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This federal law protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws. RLUIPA law also protects incarcerated individuals and states that “no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.”

Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), RLUIPA passed with strong bipartisan support, and RLUIPA affirms that incarcerated individuals ought to have religious protections while confined, and death row inmates ought to be permitted spiritual guidance, counsel, and comfort in their final moments.

How did the ERLC engage this case?

The ERLC was part of an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to protect the religious freedom of Ramirez and allow him to have his Southern Baptist pastor lay hands on and pray for him when he receives a lethal injection. Our brief asserted that the state has failed to meet its burden, under RLUIPA, of demonstrating that refusing an inmate’s request for audible prayer and laying on of hands during his execution serves a compelling interest and does so by the least restrictive means. We also asserted that there is little evidence that spiritual advisors present underlying security risks that would necessitate banning them from engaging in audible prayer or touching the prisoner.

Why does this case matter?

The right to have spiritual counsel and comfort is a centuries-old practice and must be respected and honored today. In Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion, he rightly states that “A tradition of such prayer continued throughout our Nation’s history.” He goes on to give several examples:

“When, for example, the Federal Government executed four members of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the prisoners were accompanied by clergy of various denominations. These “spiritual advisers” ministered to the condemned, and three spoke public prayers shortly before the prisoners were hanged. And in the aftermath of World War II, the United States Army even permitted Nazi war criminals facing execution to be accompanied by a chaplain, who “spoke” prayers on the gallows in the moments before death. The practice continues today. In 2020 and 2021, the Federal Bureau of Prisons allowed religious advisors to speak or pray audibly with inmates during at least six federal executions. What’s more, Texas itself appears to have long allowed prison chaplains to pray with inmates in the execution chamber, deciding to prohibit such prayer only in the last several years.”

Every person, of every faith, ought to have the opportunity to have a spiritual advisor with them in their final moments. As ERLC Acting President Brent Leatherwood stated,

“This is a significant affirmation of religious liberty. The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door. In the majority opinion, the court provided significant guidance about how this case should be handled moving forward. The state of Texas should accommodate Mr. Ramirez’s sincere requests based on his religious beliefs and allow Pastor Moore, his Southern Baptist pastor since 2016, to minister to Mr. Ramirez in his final solemn moments of life.”

Religious liberty is a foundational distinctive for the Southern Baptist Convention. As further developments in this case materialize, the ERLC will continue to advocate for religious freedom to be respected by the government.

By / Mar 24

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 24, 2022—The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 8-1 ruling today in Ramirez v. Collier, calling it a “significant affirmation of religious liberty.”

John ​​Ramirez, 37, sued Texas prison officials in August 2021 for refusing to permit Dana Moore, his pastor from Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, to minister to him during his execution. The Supreme Court provided relief by granting a stay of the execution on Sept. 8, 2021, the same night Ramirez was scheduled to receive the death penalty, while the Court reviewed the merits of Ramirez’s claims.

The ERLC filed an amicus brief that month asking the court to uphold the sincere religious liberty requests of Ramirez, and allow him to have his pastor lay hands on and audibly pray for him when he receives a lethal injection. The ERLC also published an explainer last year with more information about the case.

“This is a significant affirmation of religious liberty,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the ERLC. “The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door. In the majority opinion, the court provided significant guidance about how this case should be handled moving forward. The state of Texas should accommodate Mr. Ramirez’s sincere requests based on his religious beliefs and allow Pastor Moore, his Southern Baptist pastor since 2016, to minister to Mr. Ramirez in his final solemn moments of life.”

Ramirez based his request for the stay on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and the ERLC-endorsed brief argued the state failed a test established by that federal law. RLUIPA bars the government from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion not only by an inmate but by a person or institution in land-use cases. The government, however, can gain an exemption from the law if it can show it has a compelling interest and is using the “least restrictive means” to further that interest.

Religious liberty is a foundational distinctive for Baptists. As further developments in this case materialize, the ERLC will continue to advocate for religious freedom to be respected by the government.

By / Jul 16

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss the record number of drug overdose deaths in 2020, Oliva Rodrigo visiting the White House, anti-government protests in Cuba, two religious freedom wins, and the winner of the 2021 All-Star Game. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Andrew Bertodatti with “What is life like in the U.S. for an immigrant: One man’s journey from religious persecution in Pakistan,” Lieryn Barnett with “3 ways to be intentional with your singleness,” and Heather Rice Minus with “A new documentary sheds light on reentry after prison: A New Day 1 covers the hopes and hardships of formerly incarcerated individuals.”

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. CDC says drug overdose deaths hit record 93,300 in 2020
  2. Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts
  3. Pop star Olivia Rodrigo visits White House to urge young people to get vaccinated against Covid-19
  4. One reported dead in anti-government protests in Cuba
  5. Capitol Hill Baptist Church, D.C. settle religious liberty suit
  6. Appeals court protects church freedom in employment decisions
  7. American League wins 2021 All-Star Game

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By / Jul 13

Many people are released from prison with little more than a bus ticket and a bit of cash. Walking free can feel exhilarating — and terrifying.

“You’re used to the structured environment and people telling you when to wake up,” says Jason, a formerly incarcerated man from Detroit. “[After prison] your freedom is given to you all over again. I don’t think anything can prepare you for that moment.”

Struggles after incarceration

More than 600,000 people return home from incarceration each year. Jason’s journey out of prison, along with the reentry stories of Jeffrey (“Hajee”) in Virginia and Alona in Oklahoma, begins to unfold on screen in A New Day 1, a new documentary short film by Prison Fellowship®.

Often, people leave prison without much support or stability. Jason, Hajee, and Alona each experienced exceptional levels of support, starting with Prison Fellowship Academy®, a long-term, intensive program, and continuing postrelease with halfway houses, churches, family, and community. And each of them still experienced difficult hurdles on the path forward.

People who commit crimes should be held accountable, seek help dealing with issues underlying their behavior, and make an effort to repair the harm they have caused. Once people have paid their debt to society, they should have a fresh start. But more than 44,000 documented legal restrictions, along with widespread social stigma, can hinder people who live in the shadow of a criminal record. Immediately past the prison gates, they face limited access to education, jobs, housing, and other necessities for a full and productive life. 

Jason struggled to secure a job due to his criminal record, which would make it difficult to pay his bills. Hajee, too, faced hurdles; he found work, but when his company faced financial struggles in the pandemic, Hajee was let go. Jason and Hajee both admitted they had to be diligent to surround themselves with positive influences in their old neighborhoods. Alona took back her responsibility of being a mother and primary caregiver for her three children while trying to follow her probation requirements and rules of the transition home. And the stress took a toll on her. 

All three of them knew reentry wouldn’t be easy. But when reality hit, the challenges could seem overwhelming.

And returning citizens aren’t the only ones who suffer when their past holds them back. When people with a criminal record face reentry barriers, their children and families are impacted, too. Not to mention society at large — the U.S. loses some $78 billion a year in economic output because people with a criminal record cannot participate fully in the workforce. 

Showing the hope of the gospel 

Too often, men and women stay trapped in the cycle: crime, incarceration, reentry, repeat. Not only do communities continue to experience the brokenness of crime; everyone misses out on the hope of second chances — the realized potential of people who have paid their debt to society and desire to contribute.

Each person is made in the image of God, and no life is beyond his reach. Followers of Christ are called to share the grace and truth of the gospel with all people and to minister to those who are marginalized or oppressed. The act of serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families in the name of Jesus is not only a ministry but also a means of worship and spiritual growth. Recognizing the basic, God-given dignity of each individual, we should create a culture that celebrates formerly incarcerated people’s worth and potential, regardless of their past.

Most people behind bars will be released one day. Many of us know someone who is doing time or has been incarcerated in the past, and their criminal record haunts them after they walk free. Your church can respond by addressing the needs of returning citizens and being a place of welcome. 

But we cannot effectively love and serve returning citizens without understanding the unique issues and challenges they face — from barriers to employment, to impact on families, to mental health struggles and social reproach.

 A New Day 1 allows us to witness the journeys of people leaving prison, so we might learn, empathize, and respond to our own formerly incarcerated neighbors with the love of Christ. Prison Fellowship’s free, downloadable discussion guide for A New Day 1 will help you explore next steps for engaging further. Gather your friends, small group, or coworkers for a virtual or in-person screening of the film, and then unpack it together using the prepared questions and helpful information.