A Texas inmate asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to block his execution, arguing that the state’s refusal to allow his spiritual adviser to lay his hands on him and pray out loud in the execution chamber violates both the Constitution and a federal law protecting the religious freedom of people in prison. The request by John Ramirez, who is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday, once again brought the issue of religious rights during the administration of the death penalty back to the justices, who in the past two years have faced a flurry of emergency requests over spiritual advisers at executions.
The earlier cases centered on whether inmates could have spiritual advisers with them in their final moments at all. In February 2019, the court permitted Alabama to execute a Muslim man, Domineque Ray, after the state refused to allow Ray to have an imam at his side in the execution chamber, even though the state at that time allowed a Christian chaplain in the chamber.
One month later, the court barred Texas from executing a Buddhist prisoner, Patrick Murphy, unless he was allowed to have a Buddhist priest at his side. In an opinion agreeing with the decision to block Murphy’s execution, Justice Brett Kavanaugh emphasized that, under Texas’ policy at the time, Muslim and Christian inmates were allowed to have spiritual advisers in the execution chamber with them, but inmates of other faiths – like Murphy – were not. Although Texas may have good reasons to limit access to the execution chamber, Kavanaugh acknowledged, the solution would be to exclude all spiritual advisers from the chamber, rather than picking and choosing based on religion.
In the wake of the court’s order in Murphy’s case, Texas adopted a new policy that shut the doors of the execution chamber to all spiritual advisers. That prompted a Catholic inmate, Ruben Gutierrez, to go to federal court to argue that the new policy violated his religious rights. In June 2020, the Supreme Court postponed Gutierrez’s execution and directed the district court to determine whether allowing an inmate to choose his spiritual adviser would jeopardize security at the execution. Seven months later, after the district court concluded that it would not, the Supreme Court sent Gutierrez’s case back to the lower courts for them to take another look at the case in light of the district court’s findings.
And finally, in February 2021, the court ruled that Alabama could not execute Willie Smith III unless it allowed him to have his pastor by his side in the execution chamber.
The request that came to the justices on Tuesday differs from the earlier cases because it involves not the adviser’s mere presence in the execution chamber, but the adviser’s conduct while the lethal injection occurs. Ramirez has requested that his Baptist pastor, Dana Moore, put his hands on Ramirez’s body and pray out loud as Ramirez is executed. He went to federal court in August because Texas – which revised its policy in April to allow spiritual advisers in the execution chamber – would not grant the request. The district court rejected Ramirez’s request to postpone his execution on Sept. 2, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit on Monday declined to intervene.
Ramirez, who was sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of convenience-store clerk Pablo Castro, asked the justices to put his execution on hold and to review his case on the merits. He argued that his challenge was not a delay tactic, noting that he had first raised the spiritual-adviser question over a year ago. Under the Texas policy, Ramirez stressed, his pastor can only “stand in his little corner of the room like a potted plant” even though Ramirez believes that the laying of hands “will assist his passing from life to death and will guide his path to the afterlife.”
Ramirez’s request for a stay of his execution goes to Justice Samuel Alito, who handles emergency requests from the 5th Circuit. Alito can rule on the request on his own or, as is more common on significant substantive issues, refer the case to the full court. With Ramirez’s execution scheduled for Wednesday, the case is likely to move quickly.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.