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SCOTUS Rules Pastor Can Pray and Touch Inmate During Execution in Texas

By Dove Barbanel | Last updated on

An inmate on death row asked the state of Texas if his pastor could touch him and audibly pray for him during his execution by legal injection, but his request was denied. He chose to sue. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, who decided in Ramirez v. Collier on March 24 of this year that the inmate would likely prevail on the merits of his religious rights claims. SCOTUS sent the case back to the lower courts to decide on a suitable accommodation for the inmate's religious rights.

SCOTUS agreed to review the inmate's claim hours before his execution was scheduled, after his request for a preliminary injunction was denied in the District Court and the Fifth Circuit. Stays of execution are only meant to be temporary—they function as a "pause button" on the death sentence when a relevant legal issue is brought up, and give it time to be resolved before the defendant is executed. (essentially, a temporary halt to the capital punishment while a legal issue is resolved) by SCOTUS have been very rare recently, but the Court stayed two other Texas executions in 2019 and 2020 because of the state's denial of inmates' requests to have their spiritual advisor present in the execution chamber.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the 8-1 majority opinion in the case, arguing that Texas had the ability to prevent any further delay of the execution by creating reasonable procedures for the religious accommodation the inmate requested. Justices Sotomayor and Kavanaugh filed concurring opinions. Justice Thomas issued the lone dissent.

The Inmate's Requests For Religious Accommodations

The inmate, John Ramirez, was sentenced to death by a Texas jury for "brutally murdering" a store clerk by stabbing him with a knife numerous times, in the course of attempting robbery, and subsequently fleeing to Mexico to elude charges. His execution was delayed initially by his filing of various claims both in state court and in federal habeas proceedings, including ineffective assistance of counsel—to no avail.

In 2021, Ramirez further asked the state of Texas if, during his execution, his long-time pastor could be present in the chamber. Texas initially denied the request as against its execution protocol. Coincidentally, however, SCOTUS had just decided months prior that inmates had to be granted that accommodation before executions could proceed, in Dunn v. Smith

Read the full Dunn opinion and thousands of other cases with a free trial of WestLaw Edge.

In that case, SCOTUS stopped an Alabama execution from proceeding without accommodating the inmate's request to have spiritual advisor present in the execution chamber, noting that the law guarantees "the right to practice [one's] faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the State puts [them] to death." Even in his dissent, Justice Kavanaugh admitted that states "should figure out a way to allow spiritual advisors into the execution room, as other States and the Federal Government have done," particularly if they want to avoid delays in execution.

Likely as a direct result of Dunn and similar SCOTUS decisions, Texas amended its execution protocol to allow a member of the clergy to be present at the execution. But when Ramirez further requested that his pastor specifically be permitted to "lay hands" on him and "pray over" him while the execution was taking place, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice denied this (notably, without pointing to anywhere in their execution protocol that prohibited such action).

Ramirez argued that this denial violated his right to free exercise of religion.

There is a long history of allowing pastors to pray at executions and "lay hands" on the individual being executed, going back to before the American Revolution. Other states, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, allow the practice. Even Texas, up until recently, had a longstanding practice allowing audible prayer and physical touch by prison chaplains during execution.

Claims Under RLUIPA

The majority analyzed Ramirez' claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). This statute provides that any substantial restrictions by the state on religious freedom must be "in furtherance of a compelling government interest," and the state must use "least restrictive means" of furthering that compelling interest.

Prison officials in Texas sought to completely prohibit touching, and they stated there was a need for "absolute silence." However, the SCOTUS majority found that Texas had not shown a "compelling government interest" in either the touch or the audible prayer restriction. Further, SCOTUS noted that less restrictive rules could accomplish the same objectives Texas purported to accomplish. For example, the state could put in place rules about the volume of prayer, and could specify that the pastor could only touch body parts sufficiently removed from execution equipment so as to prevent interference.

The 2015 SCOTUS case of Holt v. Hobbs set the standard that under the RLUIPA, a prisoner's requested religious accommodation must also be based on his sincere religious relief, and not some other motivation. Ramirez's pastor had confirmed that prayer accompanied by touch was "a significant part of [their] faith tradition as Baptists," and both the lower courts and SCOTUS itself noted that Ramirez' religious beliefs appeared sincere.

But even that was not enough for Ramirez to receive his preliminary injunction. as SCOTUS established in the 2008 case of Winter v. NRDC, he further had to show: (1) that he was likely to suffer "irreparable harm" if it was denied; (2) that the "balance of equities tips in his favor;" and (3) that granting his injunction would be in the public interest.

The majority found that because the deprivation of liberty would occur in Ramirez' final moments of life, there was a possibility of irreparable harm since spiritual deprivation is not easily remedied through monetary damages. It noted that resolving a RLUIPA claim in the prisoner context requires as case-by-case consideration. It also found that it was possible to provide the requested religious accommodations without delaying or impeding Ramirez's execution. Because Ramirez was seeking the "narrowly-tailored" relief of a practical and reasonable religious accommodation, rather than an open-ended stay of the execution, the balance of equities and the public interest tipped in his favor.

Roberts thus concluded that Ramirez was likely to prevail in his RLUIPA claim on the merits, and that a preliminary injunction was warranted.

The Future of Inmates' Religious Accommodation Requests Remains Unclear

At oral argument, Justice Alito raised concerns that ruling for Ramirez would mean opening the floodgates to last-minute litigation by death row inmates over the adequacy of religious accommodations. Still, Alito ultimately voted with the majority. The majority opinion noted that while Texas may eventually face more problematic requests than those made by Ramirez, the RLUIPA requires that courts "take cases one at a time."

In her concurrence, Sotomayor pushed back further against the state's contention that Ramirez had failed to exhaust all available remedies before filing suit as mandated by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). While the majority did not need to definitively resolve this issue, prison administrators have a responsibility to timely notify prisoners of execution procedures and to decide on their execution-related requests quickly enough to allow for challenges. Sotomayor concluded that prison administrators had not done so here, and prisoners should not be penalized for the administrators' delay.

Justice Kavanaugh's concurrence highlighted the compelling state interests in "safety, security, and solemnity" during executions. But he conceded that keeping in accordance with precedent like Dunn argues in favor of free exercise of religion is permitted for all faiths in this context, which makes finding a balance difficult.

In his dissent, however, Justice Thomas pointed out facts specific to Ramirez's case, such the brutality of his crime. He also pointed out that in a previous complaint, Ramirez had written that his pastor need not touch him during execution. Thomas thus reasoned that Ramirez' appeal was really an example of "abusive litigation" designed to unjustifiably postpone execution after previous attempts had failed. He noted that the delays had an adverse effect on both the state and the family of the victim, who have an interest in the timely execution of the execution.

The majority's decision reversing and remanding the case leaves Texas with a decision: the state must now decide whether it wants to continue its defense of the RLUIPA claim in the lower courts (which would mean further delay to Ramirez' execution) or accommodate his requests.

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