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Catholic Mass and Sacraments Made Available to Louisiana’s Death Row

Officials at the Louisiana State Prison (LSP), better known as Angola, have agreed to a settlement agreement in a lawsuit alleging a prisoner’s rights were violated by the officials’ mandating of Baptist religious television to the exclusion of all other religious programming. The settlement provided for the prisoner to watch and participate in Roman Catholic sacraments.

The lawsuit was filed in December 2008 by the ACLU of Louisiana on behalf of death row prisoner Donald Lee Leger, Jr. Prior to his imprisonment, Leger was active in his local Catholic parish. Being in the “Bible belt,” the opportunities to practice his faith became difficult at LSP.

That inability, however, was not due to location alone, but was due in large part to the religious preferences of LSP officials. Warren Burl Cain had “decided[…] I would never again put someone to death without telling him about his soul and about Jesus.” Warden Cain’s brand Christianity is Baptist.

Beginning in April 2007, LSP staff routinely set every television on death row to Baptist religious programming every Sunday. Often, two services were broadcast from the same church. Cain has appeared on such broadcasts, and one preacher blessed the warden, prison administration and staff.

From April 2007 to December 31, 2008, only one Catholic Mass was broadcast on LSP’s death row television. In addition, Leger was not allowed to participate personally in Mass or to receive the Eucharist. When the Catholic diocese sent Leger a plastic rosary, LSP officials destroyed it.

Leger’s requests or grievances to be allowed to watch Catholic Mass on television were denied. Assistant Warden Robert Butler suggested Leger should convert religions. When that did not happen, and Leger continued with his grievances, LSP officials took retaliation against him by transferring him to a tier with “a reputation for ill-behaved prisoners who receive many disciplinary infractions.” A false disciplinary report, which was later vacated, was written against Leger.

In settling the matter on July 1, 2009, Leger dropped his retaliation claim. The settlement provides that Leger will be given the opportunity to watch Catholic Mass on Sunday mornings and up to twice during the week. Prisoners will no longer be forced to listen to the religious services, for the volume will be fully muted while allowing them to listen with headphones on an FM channel. Leger will also be allowed to receive the Eucharist and to participate in confession with a priest, which cannot be listened to or recorded by staff. When possible, Mass will be made available on death row.

The settlement resulted in both parties voluntarily agreeing to dismiss the suit. The defendants also paid an undisclosed amount of attorney fees. See: Leger v. State of Louisiana, USDC, M.D. Louisiana, Case No: 08-CV-820.

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Related legal case

Leger v. State of Louisiana

Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case.