Supreme Court to weigh in on religious rights of prisoners facing execution

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday will consider whether the Constitution gives prisoners facing execution the right to have spiritual advisers in the death chamber who can pray aloud and be in physical contact with them.

The court took the case after it blocked the execution of a Texas inmate, John Henry Ramirez, whose lethal injection was scheduled for early September. He argued that the state violated his religious rights by refusing to let his pastor pray audibly with him or perform a tradition known as laying on of hands.

The court has shown a growing concern in recent years about claims that states were denying the religious freedom of inmates facing the death penalty, and Texas has repeatedly adjusted its protocols. The court blocked an execution in 2019 of another Texas inmate who said his religious freedom was violated because his Buddhist spiritual adviser wasn’t allowed to be by his side.

In response, Texas banned all spiritual advisers from the execution chamber. Then, last year, the court stayed the execution of a Texas inmate challenging the no-advisers policy, prompting the state to change its policy again while keeping the prohibition on praying aloud and physical contact.

Ramirez said both he and his pastor believe that people either ascend to heaven or descend to damnation at the moment of death. Denying his pastor the traditional ministrations is a violation of religious freedom, he contended.

The traditions are deeply rooted in Ramirez’s sincere religious beliefs and “reflect the fundamental importance of prayer, song, and human touch as powerful expressions of Christian faith,” his lawyer said in court filings.

Texas allows spiritual advisers to pray with and counsel inmates until the prisoners are taken into the lethal injection chamber. Preventing them from speaking or touching inmates from that point on preserves the execution team’s ability to detect signs of distress, the state said.

The protocol balances many factors, lawyers for Texas told the Supreme Court, including “maintaining uniformity in executions to reduce the opportunity for errors, the safety and privacy of execution personnel, the rights of the inmate, and closure for the victim’s family and the community.”

Allowing an outsider to touch an inmate “poses an unacceptable risk to the security, integrity, and solemnity of the execution,” the state said.

Nine states — Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and Utah — urged the court to side with Texas. “The safety and security of state execution protocols should not be subject to federal court micromanagement,” they said in a friend-of-the-court brief.

But several religious organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Texas prohibition burdens the religious freedom not only of inmates but also of their pastors in carrying out key actions of the ministry.

Ramirez was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing a man 29 times during a convenience store robbery following a drug binge. He fled to Mexico but was arrested and brought back for trial.

The Supreme Court is likely to issue its ruling before July.

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