SCOTUS Rules Pastor Can Pray and Touch Inmate During Execution in Texas

A death row inmate requested the state of Texas to allow his pastor to hug him and chant prayers to him prior to the legal procedure of execution The request was rejected. He decided to pursue a legal action. The matter was heard by the Supreme Court, who decided in Ramirez v. Collier on March 24 of the year in which the inmate was likely to win on the merits of his claims to religious freedom. SCOTUS returned the case to lower courts in order to determine a reasonable solution to accommodate the inmate’s religion-related rights.

SCOTUS approved of a review of the defendant’s case hours prior to the execution date was set following his demand for a preliminary injunction was rejected by the District Court and the Fifth Circuit. The stays of execution are intended to last for a short period of time. They serve as they act as a “pause button” for the death sentence in the event that a legal matter is raised to allow it to settle the issue prior to the execution of the defendant. (essentially an interim stop executions until an issue with the law is settled) By SCOTUS has been extremely rare lately, yet the Court stopped two other Texas executions in 2019 as well as 2020 due to the fact that the state has refused inmates request for their personal advisors to be to be present during executions.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the 8-1 majority decision in the case, asserting that Texas could keep any delay from occurring to the execution through appropriate procedures for the type of request for religious accommodations by the inmate. Justices Sotomayor as well as Kavanaugh issued their concurring opinions. Justice Thomas issued the lone Dissent.

The person in prison, John Ramirez, was an ex-marine, who was put on death row for stabbing an employee at a grocery store 29 times before fleeing Mexico to avoid arrest as a murder suspect. Ramirez had filed numerous appeals over issues such as ineffective aid of counsel that put off his execution date.

Texas initially rejected a request made by Ramirez to have a pastor attending his execution. But, SCOTUS decided that inmates must be allowed this the facility was available prior to executions taking place as in Dunn v. Smith (2021) and Gutierrez v. Saenz (2020). Texas has since amended the procedure for execution to permit an individual from the clergy present during the execution. However, they Texas Department of Criminal Justice refused Ramirez the request of having the pastor pray in public or contact him in any manner while the procedure for lethal injections took place. Ramirez claimed that the denial was in violation of his rights to freedom of religious practice.

There’s a long-standing tradition of permitting pastors to offer prayers during executions, and “lay hands” on those who is being executed, dating as far back as when the American Revolution. Some states, as well like The Federal Bureau of Prisons, permit this practice. Texas was also allowed the use of aural prayers and physical contact by prison chaplains in execution. Many also said that Ramirez his religious convictions seemed sincere.

The majority has analyzed Ramirez’s claims in his claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The law states that major restrictions imposed by the state in relation to religious freedom have to be motivated by compelling interests of the state and that the government must employ the least restrictive methods to further that interest.

Prisoners in Texas wanted to ban all touching and stated that they needed “absolute silent.” But, the majority of them were not convinced that Texas could prove that there was an urgent interest of the government in any limitation. Furthermore, more flexible rules would achieve the same goals. The government could have controlled the frequency of prayers and allowed only touch of body parts that had been sufficiently separated from equipment used for execution to stop interfering.

SCOTUS declared that in Holt v. Hobbs that under the RLUIPA that a prisoner’s request for religious accommodations must be founded on genuine religious relief and not on different motive. Ramirez’s pastor has stated the significance of prayer with a touch to their religious beliefs, and lower courts were not able to question the religious motive of Ramirez’s appeal.

For a preliminary order, Ramirez had to not just prove that he was likely to prevail with respect to the merits of the claims, but additionally the likelihood that he would endure irreparable damage in absence of an injunction. Furthermore, the balance between equity and public interest needed to shift to his benefit.

Since the loss of liberty could occur in Ramirez in his last moments of his life There was the possibility of irreparable injury since the it is difficult to be addressed through the use of financial damage. Roberts stated in his decision that the determination of an RLUIPA case in the prisoner’s context “requires an individualized approach.” Since it was feasible to grant the religious accommodation requested without hindering or delaying Ramirez’s execution the balance of the equities as well as the public’s interest tilted to his advantage.

Roberts found that Ramirez is likely to be successful in his RLUIPA case on the merits and the need for a preliminary injunction was appropriate.

In oracle, Justice Alito raised concerns regarding the fact that ruling against Ramirez could open the way to lawsuits by prisoners on death row concerning the quality of religion-based accommodations. But, Alito ultimately voted with the majority. In the majority opinion, Alito was noted that although Texas might eventually be faced with greater challenges than the ones submitted by Ramirez However, the RLUIPA stipulates that courts must consider just the claimant in question as well as the significant burden placed on the religious fervor of their claimants.

As a result of her ruling Sotomayor further pushed back against the argument of the state that Ramirez was not able to go through all the available options prior to taking action as stipulated in the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Although the majority of judges did not have to resolve the matter, the prison administrator has an obligation to inform the prisoners about their execution options and also to make decisions on execution-related demands quickly enough that they can be challenged. Sotomayor found that administrators of prisons were not doing this and that prisoners shouldn’t be punished for their delays of the administrators.

Kavanaugh’s concurrency noted the imperative public interest in security in security, solemnity, and security when executions are carried out. In accordance with the prior law, the free exercise of faith is permissible to all religions within the context of executions, making the task of finding a compromise difficult. In order to avoid litigation in the future as well as the associated delays states should “try to be able to meet an inmate’s promptly and in a reasonable manner regarding an advisor’s religious presence as well as actions in the execution chamber.”

However, in his dissent, Thomas highlighted case-specific facts such as the ugliness of Ramirez’s crime. In an earlier complaint, Ramirez had written that his pastor was not required to touch him while executing. Thomas claimed that Ramirez’s appeal was an instance of a sham lawsuit for postponing execution after numerous previous efforts had not succeeded. The delay had a negative impact on the family members of the victim who was a mother of nine children.

The majority’s decision in reversing and remanding the injunction denial an injunction preliminary leaves Texas with a final decision. The state is now required to decide if it is interested in defending this RLUIPA claim in lower courts which would mean an additional delay in Ramirez’s date of execution, or in coming up with a solution to meet his demands.

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