The court issued the 8 to 1 decision on Thursday. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanaugh wrote concurrences, and Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.
At the center of the case is John Ramirez, sentenced to death in 2008 for the 2004 murder of Pablo Castro in Corpus Christi. Scheduled for execution on September 8 last year, Ramirez seeks to have his pastor pray over him and lay hands on him during his execution. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice prohibits this policy, claiming in court briefs that it could endanger the inmate and taint the solemnity of the execution.
Ramirez is suing under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which says that governments cannot impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of imprisoned people unless the imposition furthers a “compelling governmental interest” that cannot be achieved by less restrictive means.
The Supreme Court recognized a legitimate state interest in protecting safety and dignity during executions but said Texas could meet this goal without banning audible prayer and religious touch wholesale.
“Texas has a compelling interest in preventing disruptions of any sort and maintaining solemnity and decorum in the execution chamber. But the record here provides no indication that Ramirez’s pastor would cause the sorts of disruptions that respondents fear. Conjecture alone fails to satisfy the sort of case-by-case analysis that RLUIPA requires,” the decision syllabus reads.
Chief Justice John Roberts noted in the majority opinion that Texas’s rules against clerical participation at executions are relatively new in American history.
“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,” Roberts wrote.
“We think that preventing accidental interference with the prison’s IV lines is a compelling governmental interest. But we also think it is one reasonably addressed by means short of banning all touch in the execution chamber. For example, Texas could allow touch on a part of the body away from IV lines, such as a prisoner’s lower leg.”
According to Ramirez’s petition, he was accepted as a member of a Baptist church in 2016 and holds a sincere belief in the spiritual value of having his pastor, Dana Moore, lay hands on him during his death.
“Like all clerics, Pastor Moore vocalizes prayers and scriptures. But [the State of Texas] will not allow Pastor Moore to lay his hands on Ramirez’s body as the poison courses through his veins. Nor will Moore be allowed to sing prayers, say prayers or scriptures, whisper prayers or scriptures, move his mouth, or do anything other than stand silently in a corner of the execution chamber,” Ramirez’s petition reads.
“In nothing filed in this litigation over the past month has anyone with TDCJ explained how the speaking of words of prayer or scriptures by Dr. Moore interferes, unnecessarily or otherwise, with the execution function. This is a problem because the total ban on prayer and scripture ignores many less restrictive alternatives… [N]o less restrictive alternative cognizes a security rationale requiring the execution chamber to become a godless vacuum.”
Texas argued that clergy in the death chamber could jostle the injection IV lines or prevent execution staff from watching for any distress of the inmate.
“IV lines are easily displaced or pinched — particularly with an untrained individual in the tight space of the chamber,” the state’s brief reads.
“An outsider touching the inmate during lethal injection poses an unacceptable risk to the security, integrity, and solemnity of the execution. Even inadvertent interference with the IV lines could cause pain to Ramirez and emotional distress to his victim’s family. Vocalizing during the lethal injection would interfere with the drug team’s ability to monitor and respond to unexpected occurrences.”
Additionally, calling the history of the proceedings “rife with delay,” the state suggested that Ramirez only made his request as an effort to delay his execution, one of the arguments that swayed Thomas to dissent.
Ramirez’s September 8 execution date — halted, on the day, by the Supreme Court — was not the first time he dodged the needle.
His first execution date was set for February 2, 2017 but delayed by a district court stay in a case that was later dismissed.
He was scheduled a second time for September of 2020. At the time, Texas protocol barred all spiritual advisors from entering the chamber. Ramirez submitted a grievance in the Texas prison system, then arguing that Pastor Moore “need not touch Mr. Ramirez at any time in the execution chamber.”
After pursuing his grievance through the channels of the Texas prison system, Ramirez went to court and sued over this policy. The litigation was dismissed once Texas withdrew Ramirez’s death warrant and changed the policy to allow spiritual advisors to be in the room.
Nearly a year later, Ramirez filed a new grievance seeking spiritual touch in the death chamber. He sought permission for audible prayer later, 17 days before his execution date.
Thomas said the court should have treated Ramirez’s current petition, filed the day before his execution date, as the latest in a history of stalling efforts.
“In the end, none of Ramirez’s federal habeas claims merited even a single certificate of appealability, let alone relief. Yet, through ceaseless litigation, strategic delay, and a ‘[l]ast-minute’ blitz on the District Court, Ramirez parlayed his federal habeas petition into a 7-year deferral of his lawfully imposed sentence,” Thomas wrote.
“We should interpret Ramirez’s actions in the instant litigation in light of that history, recognize that his shifting in-chambers-touching claim is just another chapter in that history, and reject his most recent attempt to delay his execution.”
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