Court upholds right to have a pastor in death chamber

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The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the religious liberty rights of a Texas Death Row inmate who wants his pastor to lay hands on him and audibly pray for him at the moment of his execution.

In an 8-1 decision in Ramirez v. Collier, the court ruled the state should accommodate the request of John Ramirez, who was convicted and sentenced to die for the 2004 murder and robbery of a convenience store clerk. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.

Ramirez asked prison officials to allow his spiritual adviser, Pastor Dana Moore of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, to be present in the death chamber to touch him and pray when he is executed by lethal injection. Moore has ministered to Ramirez in prison about five years. After Ramirez made a profession of faith in Christ on Texas Death Row, Second Baptist Church allowed him to join its membership.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice denied the request by Ramirez, citing security concerns. Lower courts sided with the TDCJ, saying the agency has a “compelling interest in maintaining an orderly, safe and effective process” when carrying out executions.

‘Protected religious free exercise’

The Supreme Court granted a preliminary injunction, concluding Ramirez had exhausted administrative remedies and he likely would succeed in proving his request was based on “sincerely held religious belief.”

While the court agreed the state has a clear interest in carrying out executions in a safe and orderly manner, safety issues do not justify denying an inmate the right to spiritual comfort.

“Ramirez is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of injunctive relief because he will be unable to engage in protected religious exercise in the final moments of his life. Compensation paid to his estate would not remedy this harm, which is spiritual rather than pecuniary,” Chief Justice John Roberts stated in the court’s majority opinion.

Under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, the court determined Ramirez likely would succeed in demonstrating the state’s “categorical ban on audible prayer” and the prohibition on having a religious adviser in the death chamber substantially burden his exercise of religion.

The court determined it was unlikely the state could demonstrate “a compelling government interest” in refusing the prisoner’s request for a religious accommodation or that its refusal was the “least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.”

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‘Rich history of clerical prayer’ at executions

The court cited “a rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution,” and it pointed out the Federal Bureau of Prisons allows religious advisers to speak or pray audibly with inmates during executions.

The state’s concerns about safety and decorum could be handled in a less restrictive manner, the court concluded. For example, Texas could place limits on the volume of any audible prayer so that medical officials could monitor an inmate’s condition, and it could stipulate that the spiritual adviser’s touch of the prisoner be far removed from the site of any IV line.

Moore said he was glad the court “upheld John’s religious liberty rights” by allowing his pastor to be present to pray with him and lay hands on him in the moments leading to his death.

“Touch is a very meaningful and supportive way of showing compassion and love,” Moore said. “That’s why Jesus touched.”

Moore added he would be willing to abide by any reasonable restrictions if it meant being able to offer spiritual comfort to a member of his church.

“I am not there to be a disruptive influence,” he said. “I just want to be there to minister to John as his pastor.”

Affirmation of court’s decision

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission joined the National Association of Evangelicals and others in a friend-of-the-court brief filled last September.

The brief specifically appealed to rights guaranteed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

On Twitter, BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler noted the court has “wrestled with issues involving religious exercise in the death chamber” for three years.

“I’m pleased that a strong majority (8-1) held today that Mr. Ramirez is likely to succeed in his RLUIPA claim to exercise his religion in his last moments of life,” she tweeted.

Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the ERLC, called the court’s decision in Ramirez v. Collier “a significant affirmation of religious liberty.”

“The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door,” Leatherwood stated.

In the majority opinion, Roberts specifically quoted an amicus brief filed by Becket, a nonprofit law firm focused on protecting the free exercise of religion. Eric Rassbach, senior counsel at Becket, applauded the court decision. 

“Even the condemned have a right to get right with God,” Rassbach said. “The Supreme Court recognized that allowing clergy to minister to the condemned in their last moments stands squarely within a history stretching back to George Washington and before. That tradition matters.”  

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