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Justices rule for inmate seeking touch of pastor during execution

The nation’s highest court found a Texas ban on religious touching and audible prayer in the execution chamber violates federal law.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 8-1 in favor of a death row inmate who argues his spiritual adviser should be able to touch him and pray out loud while he is executed.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 22-page opinion that Texas’ categorical ban on religious touch and prayer in the execution chamber is inconsistent with John Ramirez’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“Because it is possible to accommodate Ramirez’s sincere religious beliefs without delaying or impeding his execution, we conclude that the balance of equities and the public interest favor his requested relief,” Roberts wrote, noting that both having a pastor lay hands and pray over Ramirez would be considered traditional forms of religious exercise.

Ramirez’s Houston-based attorney Seth Kretzer said in a statement Thursday that he and his client were elated with the high court’s ruling.

“Banning prayer by clergy members will not be permitted under the American legal system in even the most dejected square foot of this country,” Kretzer said. “We look forward to prevailing in the forthcoming litigation about the issue of whether Mr. Ramirez’s pastor may safely touch him during execution just as prison-employed chaplains have done in every execution over the past 37 years.”

He added, “After an 8-1 Supreme Court loss, the time has come for the state of Texas to end its failed, taxpayer-funded battle against prayer.”

The Texas Attorney General’s Office did not immediately return a request for comment on the ruling Thursday.

At oral arguments in November, Kretzer said that when he and his client found out that the state of Texas would not allow laying of hands by a pastor during execution, they filed a complaint within days. 

A former Marine, Ramirez had been trying to get money to buy drugs in 2004 when he stabbed convenience store clerk Pablo Castro 29 times, slashed his throat and made off with a dollar and 25 cents. He fled to Mexico but was arrested in 2008.

Ramirez was convicted by a jury of capital murder and sentenced to death in December 2008. 

He sued Texas prison officials after he realized that his Baptist minister, Dana Moore, would not be allowed to pray with him and lay hands on him in the death chamber “to help guide him into the afterlife” as he was executed with a lethal dose of pentobarbital – the Lone Star State’s method of carrying out executions. Ramirez, a member of the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, said the ban violates his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Arguing on behalf of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in November, Texas Solicitor General Judd Stone expressed doubts that Ramirez’s appeal was sincere, noting the state had granted the inmate’s request in April 2021 to have his pastor in the chamber during his execution.

“If Ramirez was aware of the entire time that he wanted pastoral touch and audible prayer, he has no excuse for failing to timely raise and grieve those requests,” Stone said, further arguing that the inmate's successful work staying his execution suggests he is gaming the system.

This undated photo provided by The Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows John Henry Ramirez, a Texas death row inmate. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via Courthouse News)

Ramirez’s case came up through the high court after a Houston federal judge declined to stay the execution. He then appealed to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, where a divided panel also refused to intervene. Finally, he filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court and his execution, set for 6 p.m. on a Wednesday in September, was delayed at the last minute as prison officials waited for word.

The justices called off the execution around 9 p.m. that night and ordered the case be fast-tracked for oral arguments.

Ramirez’s September reprieve was the third time the inmate’s execution had been delayed. The first was in 2017 when courts granted his request for a new attorney, and the second came after his attorney successfully argued it should be pushed back due to health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Pending factual disputes within the case between the two parties, Eric Feigin, a deputy solicitor general at the Department of Justice, also spoke before the high court in November in support of neither party, asking the court to remand the issue so that Texas could offer state-specific reasons why the ban on prayer and touch by pastors is necessary.

The case marks the third time since 2019 the Supreme Court has called off the execution of a Texas inmate over the state’s rules for letting prisoners’ spiritual advisers give them last rites in the death chamber.

Justice Clarence Thomas filed a 23-page dissenting opinion in the case Thursday, calling Ramirez’s request for relief “a demonstrably abusive and insincere claim filed by a prisoner with an established history of seeking unjustified delay.”

“Given Ramirez’s history, I suspect that his goal in raising this claim is also to secure delay,” Thomas wrote, adding that he would also dismiss Ramirez’s claim because he did not comply with the Prison Litigation Reform Act by exhausting the administrative remedies available to him before bringing his claim to federal court.

However, Roberts, joined by the rest of the justices, disagreed with the view that Ramirez’s request was not sincere.

“As Ramirez’s grievance states, ‘it is part of my faith to have my spiritual advisor lay hands on me anytime I am sick or dying.’ Pastor Moore, who has ministered to Ramirez for four years, agrees that prayer accompanied by touch is ‘a significant part of our faith tradition as Baptists.’ And neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals doubted that Ramirez had a sincere religious basis for his requested accommodations,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts added that since Ramirez is likely to succeed in showing that Texas’s policy substantially burdens his exercise of religion, the state would have to prove that its refusal to accommodate him furthers “a compelling governmental interest,” and is the “least restrictive means of furthering” that interest.

“Here, the government has not shown that it is likely to carry that burden,” the chief justice wrote. 

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanagh both filed concurring opinions.

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