On Thursday, the Supreme Court almost all agreed to explain the religious freedom rights of people on death row.
In an 8-1 opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded that Texas prison officials likely violated the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when they refused to allow inmate John Ramirez’s pastor to “lay hands” on and audibly “pray over” him during his execution. Roberts said that Texas’s bans on touch and audible prayer by spiritual advisers in the execution chamber are not the least restrictive way to advance the state’s compelling interests.
Ramirez was put on death row in 2008 after Pablo Castro’s murder conviction. During a 2004 crime spree that included robbing a Corpus Christi convenience store clerk of $1.25, Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times. Castro died on the spot, leaving behind nine children and 14 grandchildren. During his time in prison, Ramirez, according to his pastor, came to faith in Christ.
Having had his case dismissed by several lower courts, Ramirez took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In September 2021, the justices stopped him from being executed and, in a rare move, set oral arguments for the case for November 1, less than two months later.
Becket Law’s Eric Rassbach said the expedited November arguments meant the court was ready to deal more definitively with the recurring issue of death row rights—and Thursday’s ruling did not disappoint. When oral arguments ended, Rassbach said that the majority of court observers were shocked at how lopsided the victory was.
Attorneys for the state of Texas argued that Ramirez did not exhaust administrative procedures for his claim and was insincere in his religious beliefs. But the majority noted that Ramirez had clearly presented his request to prison officials. Due to his previous complaint against his scheduled execution, the justices refused to say that he was dishonest.
Prison officials argued that audible prayer might interfere with the administration of a lethal injection or be misused to make statements to witnesses or officials. But Roberts said a flat ban was unwarranted and prison officials could craft a more narrowly tailored policy to meet their concerns. “As for audible prayer, there is a rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our nation,” he wrote.
In Texas, spiritual advisers are already permitted to stand 3 feet away from inmates during executions. Despite the state’s claim that allowing the prisoner to be touched would increase the risk of interference, the court disagreed. “We do not see how letting the spiritual adviser stand slightly closer, reach out his arm, and touch a part of the prisoner’s body well away from the site of any IV line would meaningfully increase risk,” Roberts wrote.
The lone dissenter was Justice Clarence Thomas. For more than a decade, Ramirez has been delaying the execution of his crime in order to avoid the death penalty, according to his letter. His execution can be postponed once more because of this court’s decision.
John Ramirez’s execution will not be halted or delayed by Thursday’s ruling. However, it does require the state to implement a policy that is more specific to its concerns. After the Supreme Court temporarily halted the execution of Willie Smith, Alabama adopted a policy allowing audible prayer in the execution chamber and allowing a spiritual adviser to hold an inmate’s hand. (The execution of Smith took place in October of last year.)
As Rassbach pointed out, death row inmates are not the most popular litigants. “This court is committed to religious liberty for everyone,” he said. As a nation, “it says something about us” that the court is concerned with these issues.