WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Thursday that states must consider the wishes of death row inmates who want their pastors to pray aloud and even touch them during their executions.
The court ruled in the case of Texas inmate John Henry Ramirez, who challenged state rules that allegedly forced his pastor to be silent and away from him while he was placed in dead.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in an 8-1 opinion, joined by conservative and liberal justices, that “it is possible to accommodate Ramirez’s sincere religious beliefs without delaying or preventing his execution.” Some other states and the federal government have recently carried out executions where audible prayer and some physical contact were permitted in the execution chamber.
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented. Thomas said Ramirez had repeatedly tried to delay his execution and that his ongoing trial “is just the latest iteration in an 18-year escape pattern.”
Roberts noted that Texas “appears to have long permitted prison chaplains to pray with inmates in the execution chamber, deciding to ban such prayer only in recent years.” He also dismissed concerns that allowing a pastor to touch an inmate could interfere with the intravenous lines that carry the drugs used to carry out the execution. An inmate could be hit “on a part of the body away from the IV lines, such as a prisoner’s lower leg,” he wrote, noting that Ramirez’s attorney had said it would be enough if his pastor can touch his foot.
Under a federal law that protects the religious rights of prisoners, Texas had to show both a compelling need for its policy and show that its restrictions were least necessary to achieve the safety of officials and other goals. The judges said Texas did not.
Roberts’ opinion also urged states to consider the religious needs of detainees in the context of executions and proactively adopt policies. “If states adopt clear rules in advance, this should be the rare case that requires last-minute appeal to federal courts,” he wrote. Five states and the federal government carried out a total of 11 executions last year.
Ramirez is on death row for killing a Corpus Christi convenience store employee during a 2004 robbery. Ramirez stabbed the man, Pablo Castro, 29 times and stole $1.25 from him.
Ramirez’s attorney, Seth Kretzer, said in a phone interview that he was “thrilled” with the decision. He said he expects Texas to rewrite its policy as a result of the ruling, but he said it was unclear how long that might take or what restrictions the state might still have. seek to impose.
In his view, Roberts suggested that a less restrictive policy might have required “silence during critical points in the execution process” or limited “the volume of any prayer”. Similarly, the state may have restricted “the period during which touching is permitted” or require the pastor to undergo training.
Texas officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lower courts had sided with Texas in allowing his policy, but the Supreme Court halted Ramirez’s scheduled September 8 execution to review his case. Executions in Texas, the nation’s busiest death penalty state, had been delayed while the court considered the case.
Texas policy on spiritual advisors in the death chamber has changed in recent years in part because of judges’ rulings. As the Supreme Court has become more conservative in recent years, it has generally been less open to last-minute challenges to death sentences. But the issues surrounding ministers in the death chamber have been one area where judges have had some openness to stopping an execution.
In 2019, judges blocked the execution of Texas inmate Patrick Murphy over the issue of his spiritual advisor. At the time of Murphy’s scheduled execution, Texas allowed state-employed religious advisers to be in the execution chamber, but only employed Christian and Muslim advisers, not anyone who was Buddhist, the Murphy’s faith. This meant that Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual advisor could only be present in the viewing room and not in the execution room itself, an outcome he said was unacceptable.
Texas responded by barring all clergy from the execution chamber, but inmates filed additional lawsuits. Texas finally changed its policy in 2021 to allow state-employed chaplains and outside spiritual advisors who meet certain screening requirements to enter the execution chamber. But he said they couldn’t talk or touch the inmate.
The Biden administration had weighed in on Ramirez’s case, arguing that Texas policy was too restrictive. Under the previous administration of former President Donald Trump, the federal government resumed executions for the first time in 17 years, carrying out 13 of them at the federal execution chamber in Terre Haute, Arizona. Indiana. In at least six of these executions, religious advisers spoke aloud in the execution chamber and in at least one case there was brief physical contact.
The Biden administration has halted federal executions while the Justice Department conducts a review of its policies and procedures.
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