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Supreme Court Ruling Expands Death Row Prisoners’ Religious Rights

4 minute read

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a Texas death row prisoner likely has the right to have his Baptist pastor touch and audibly pray over him as he is put to death. The state of Texas had said the request was a safety risk. The ruling, which was 8-1, is the first time the Supreme Court has issued a full opinion on the role clergy can play in executions, and provides guidance for death penalty states on how to handle the issue going forward.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that “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 said that Texas had not shown that “a total ban” on audible prayer or a “categorical ban” on religious touch was the least restrictive means of furthering the state’s interest in ensuring a safe execution.

“We do not see how letting the spiritual advisor 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. And that is all Ramirez requests here,” Roberts continued.

The case before the court, Ramirez v. Collier, concerned 37-year-old John Ramirez, who was sentenced to death in 2008 for the 2004 murder of Corpus Christi convenience store clerk Pablo Castro. He was scheduled to be executed on Sept. 8. While prison officials said Ramirez’s Baptist pastor would be allowed to stand in the execution chamber, he would not be able to touch Ramirez.

On Aug. 10, Ramirez’s lawyer filed a federal lawsuit asking that his pastor, Dana Moore, be allowed to touch Ramirez. The state declined the request nine days later, and added that Moore also could not audibly pray while in the execution chamber. On Aug. 22, Ramirez’s lawyer filed an amended emergency petition asking that Ramirez’s execution be halted until the question of whether Moore could touch and audibly pray over Ramirez was settled. The request shot up to the Supreme Court, which announced on Sept. 8 that it would stay Ramirez’s execution—scheduled for that very night—until it could consider the legal questions at hand.

Ramirez’s attorney had argued that the “vocalization of prayer” and the “laying on of hands” are significant aspects of the Baptist faith tradition and that, by rejecting Ramirez’s request, The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) had violated both the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits the government from imposing a “substantial burden” on religious exercise. TDCJ responded that Ramirez’s request violated security protocol and was raised too late. It suggested the plea was a tactic to delay his execution.

On Thursday morning the high court issued its answer: The state of Texas must go before a federal judge and prove there’s a substantial likelihood that Ramirez’s request threatened the safety of the execution, and that officials had considered all the possible alternatives that would not burden Ramirez’s religious exercise. And Ramirez will likely succeed in that instance.

The high court’s decision caps off a years-long string of litigation out of Texas and Alabama over what religious rights prisoners are granted as they are being put to death. The Supreme Court weighed in on the issue in the past on its “shadow docket,” a term that refers to expedited decisions outside of the court’s formal proceedings that skip many of the traditional steps, including oral arguments. But the court’s emergency rulings and periodic concurrences left the public with limited insight into the scope of death row prisoners’ religious rights.

Friday’s decision clarifies the court’s position: states must prove they have considered all other possible options if they want to restrict a prisoner’s religious exercise in this way. That’s a high burden to meet.

“The Supreme Court clarified that the rule of law is as ubiquitous as God,” Ramirez’s lawyer Seth Kretzer said in a statement. “Both exist everywhere and always — high up in the hallowed halls of power and down low in the hell of the execution chamber.” He added: “We look forward to prevailing in the forthcoming litigation.”

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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com