The laying on of hands at the Supreme Court
Justices again consider death row inmates’ religious liberty rights
A Supreme Court 11th-hour ruling on Wednesday stayed the execution of a death row inmate who wants his pastor to pray aloud and lay hands on him before he dies.
The court’s brief order halted the legal injection of Texas inmate John Ramirez, 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 convenience store clerk of $1.25. The justices ordered an expedited briefing so they can hear the case in October or November.
Ramirez argued the Texas prison’s policy barring spiritual advisers from laying hands on the person being executed or praying out loud in the death chamber violated his religious liberty.
Dana Moore, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, where Ramirez is a member, told Christianity Today Ramirez came to faith while on death row through the ministry of two women in his congregation. “When I pray with people, I put a hand on them,” Moore said. “It’s how we do things.”
On Sept. 2, U.S. District Judge David Hittner denied Ramirez’s request to pause the execution. Hittner concluded Texas correctional officials’ procedure—allowing the spiritual adviser only to have access to the inmate and stand nearby during the execution—did not substantially burden Ramirez’s religious liberty. Four days later, a split federal appeals court panel agreed. In a concurring opinion, Circuit Judge Higginbotham cited the complexities of the execution process and the near-universal bar on non-medical personnel in the execution chamber. He noted Texas was more open in allowing the spiritual adviser to be in the room.
Becket counsel Eric Rassbach, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Ramirez, pointed to recent cases where the court sided with prisoners in religious liberty disputes: “The right of a condemned person to the comfort of clergy—and the corresponding right of clergy to comfort the condemned—are among the longest-standing and most well-recognized religious exercises known to civilization.”
In March 2019, the justices stayed Patrick Henry Murphy’s death after Texas blocked a Buddhist spiritual adviser from the execution chamber even though it allowed Christian and Muslim ones. In February 2021, a divided Supreme Court blocked the execution of Willie Smith, an Alabama inmate denied the presence of a spiritual adviser in the execution room.
But Ramirez’s case extends the religious liberty argument from a spiritual figure’s presence to audible prayer and physical touch. In a state brief last month, Texas Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Wren Morris argued against opening the door to further religious rituals. “Where a Protestant may request his pastor’s hands upon him as he passes, a Muslim may prefer for his body to be washed and shrouded immediately upon his passing, and a Buddhist, that his body be untouched for seven days after his death,” she wrote.
Becket’s Chris Pagliarella acknowledged the state’s concern but emphasized the importance of balancing it with religious liberty. “All people of faith—not just those on death row—are protected when the court puts a government to its proof when it restricts religious exercise,” he tweeted.
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