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Supreme Court upholds death row prisoner’s rights

Justices say Texas’ bar on death chamber audible prayer and touch is too restrictive

A statue outside the Supreme Court in Washington Associated Press/Photo by Patrick Semansky, file

Supreme Court upholds death row prisoner’s rights

A near-unanimous Supreme Court clarified the religious liberty rights of death row inmates on Thursday.

In an 8-1 opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded that Texas prison officials likely violated the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), when they refused to allow inmate John Ramirez’s pastor to “lay hands” on and audibly “pray over” him during his execution. Roberts said Texas’ restrictions on touch and audible prayer by spiritual advisers in the execution chamber substantially burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the state’s compelling interests.

Ramirez is on death row after a 2008 conviction for murdering Pablo Castro. Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times during a 2004 crime spree during which he robbed the Corpus Christi convenience store clerk of $1.25. Castro died on the spot, leaving behind nine children and 14 grandchildren. Ramirez’s pastor told Christianity Today the inmate became a Christian while in prison.

After several lower courts dismissed Ramirez’s case, he appealed to the Supreme Court. In September 2021, the justices blocked his impending execution and took the unusual step of scheduling oral arguments for the case less than two months later, on Nov. 1.

Becket Law’s Eric Rassbach said the expedited November arguments meant the court was ready to deal more definitively with the recurring issue of death row rights—and Thursday’s ruling did not disappoint. After the back-and-forth of oral arguments, most court observers were surprised at the lopsided victory, Rassbach said.

Attorneys for the state of Texas argued that Ramirez did not exhaust administrative procedures for his claim and was insincere in his religious beliefs. But the majority noted that Ramirez had clearly presented his request to prison officials. The justices refused to say that he was insincere because he had previously filed a complaint to block his earlier scheduled execution.

Prison officials argued that audible prayer might interfere with the administration of a lethal injection or be misused to make statements to witnesses or officials. But Roberts said a flat ban was unwarranted and prison officials could craft a more narrowly tailored policy to meet their concerns. “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,” he wrote.

Texas already allowed spiritual advisers to stand in the room 3 feet away from inmates during execution. The court was unconvinced by the state’s argument that letting them touch the prisoner would present a greater risk of interference. “We do not see how letting the spiritual adviser stand slightly closer, reach out his arm, and touch a part of the prisoner’s body well away from the site of any IV line would meaningfully increase risk,” Roberts wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter. “Ramirez has manufactured more than a decade of delay to evade the capital sentence lawfully imposed by the state of Texas,” he wrote. “This court now affords yet another chance for him to delay his execution.”

Thursday’s ruling does not end the matter nor prevent John Ramirez from being executed. It does mean that the state will have to implement a policy more narrowly tailored to its concerns. Texas could follow the lead of states like Alabama, which adopted a policy allowing audible prayer in the execution chamber and allowing a spiritual adviser to hold an inmate’s hand after the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the execution of Willie Smith. (Smith’s execution proceeded last October.)

While death row inmates are not the most popular litigants, Rassbach noted the ruling has broader implications. “This is a court that’s committed to religious liberty for everyone,” he said. “It says something about us as a nation that the court cares about these things.”

Steve West

Steve is a reporter for WORLD. A graduate of World Journalism Institute, he worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, N.C., where he resides with his wife.



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