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Making room for mercy

Even condemned prisoners deserve a pastor


Texas death row inmate John Henry Ramirez Associated Press/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Making room for mercy
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Condemned prisoners cannot be denied a pastor. In the recently decided Ramirez v. Collier case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of a Texas inmate who sought to have his pastor “pray over him” and lay hands on him at the time of his execution. We should applaud the court and the people who had the foresight to lobby for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) that laid the groundwork for this result.

The last decade of the 20th century was a time of great stress and tumult in the law regarding the First Amendment’s right to the free exercise of religion. First, the Supreme Court issued its Smith decision (regarding ceremonial peyote use by Native Americans) that dramatically reduced the scope of protection for religious liberty and free exercise rights. In 1993, Congress countered by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—nearly unanimously. The court, in turn, ruled that RFRA would bind only the federal government. In response, religious liberty advocates in Congress attempted to pass the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) to protect religious liberty rights in the 50 states.

By that time, concerns over LGBT rights had fractured the coalition, and groups on the left drifted away from supporting religious liberty. Efforts to pass RLPA failed, but religious liberty supporters did manage to pass a law (RLUIPA) protecting churches from aggressive zoning laws and prisoners from excessive infringements of their free exercise rights. RLUIPA was especially championed by the late Chuck Colson and the organization he founded, Prison Fellowship. Thanks to RLUIPA, condemned prisoner John Henry Ramirez won the right to have his longtime pastor present and minister to him as he receives the ultimate legal sanction for his crime.

Without laws protecting religious liberty, a secular state would be able to trample on our rights. A government could treat a prisoner’s request for a pastor to be present at his execution as essentially nothing but an eccentric request from a convicted criminal. However, there were two important forces at work in favor of Ramirez. First, there is a long tradition of allowing condemned prisoners to have clergy ministering to them during their last moments. The court recognized the existence of that practice. Second, and decisively, RLUIPA requires that if the state substantially burdens the free exercise of religion, it must prove that it does so for a compelling reason and by the least restrictive means. This formula puts a large burden on the state, which is completely appropriate given the importance of religious convictions and the uniquely American impulse to protect faith and practice. Texas could give no satisfying reason to deny Ramirez’s last request for ministry at the time of his death.

The dismissive treatment religious liberty often receives today is inappropriate, inauthentic to our history, and terribly shortsighted.

Religious liberty has gone from being one of the American values of which we have been most proud to being a phrase left-wing writers place in scare quotes. But the dismissive treatment religious liberty often receives today is inappropriate, inauthentic to our history, and terribly shortsighted. The Bill of Rights is the part of the U.S. Constitution that is perhaps the most celebrated (along with the post–Civil War amendments). And the reason why that is the case is that those amendments largely protect the individual against the incredibly powerful coercive forces of the state. They make room for liberty and especially for the freedom individuals need as they live, think, worship, believe, and speak. The first right mentioned in that storied list is religious liberty. The government may not compel worship and observance of its own established church. Neither may it inhibit the free exercise of religion. John Ramirez benefitted from the American constitutional tradition and its regard for the faith of the individual.

The Ramirez case is a sad one, reminding us all of the reality of moral evil. John Ramirez, according to the court’s verdict, committed a brutal murder. For that crime, he will pay with his life. The Christian belief is that we are all sinners and that all may repent and seek the forgiveness of God. That certainly does not mean that we escape earthly consequences.

Thanks to the concept of religious liberty, derived from the Christian faith and still vital in our nation’s jurisprudence, Ramirez will face eternity with a minister at his side and praying for him as a penitent believer.

Micah 6:8 sets forth the Lord’s requirement to “do justly” and “love mercy.” By taking proper account of religious liberty, the Supreme Court rendered its judgment for John Ramirez and honored both of those imperatives. To understand the importance of this Supreme Court decision, just ask yourself if a just society, in the name of the people, would deny a condemned prisoner the right to a pastor.


Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the dean of the faculty and provost of North Greenville University.


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