Texas appeals court rejects First Amendment challenge to death-penalty statutes
Texas’ death-penalty laws do not violate the First Amendment principle
of church-state separation, a state appeals court has ruled.
Brittany Marlowe Holberg was convicted of murder and sentenced to
death for the November 1996 robbery and murder of an 80-year-old man.
After a jury from Randall County convicted and sentenced her to death,
Holberg appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In her appeal,
Holberg made numerous challenges to her conviction and death sentence.
Among her claims, Holberg contended that the Texas death-penalty
statutes violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which provides
for separation of church and state.
She claimed two Texas statutes relating to the administration of the
death penalty violated the establishment clause because:
The sponsors of the 1973 Texas House bill that led to the
state’s death-penalty law articulated “the religious purpose for the
punishment, while siding, in fact, with the viewpoint of a particular and
identifiable religious sect.”
The effect of the Texas death-penalty statutes was to advance
“the beliefs of fundamentalist Protestants over those other branches of
American Christianity and other sects and religions that oppose the death
penalty on contrasting religious grounds.”
Holberg’s attorneys cited statements from several sponsors of the 1973
legislation citing biblical passages that, in their view, supported the death
In its Nov. 29 decision, the Texas appeals court rejected all of
Holberg’s arguments, including the establishment clause claim in
Holberg v. State of Texas.
The appeals court determined that the legislature’s “actual purpose”
in enacting the death penalty was based on “one or more of the following
reasonable, secular beliefs”:
The death penalty is proportional punishment for certain
The death penalty ensures that the offender will commit no
The death penalty may deter some professional criminals.
“The primary effect of the statutes is penal in nature, not religious,
and the mere fact that the statutes are consistent with the tenets of a
particular faith does not render the statutes in violation of the Establishment
Clause,” the appeals court wrote.