Supreme Court to Consider Death-Row Inmate’s Request For Hands-on Prayer

COMMENTARY: Texas’ denial of John Ramirez’s request for his pastor to lay hands on him and pray for him at his execution goes before the high court Nov. 1.

The Supreme Court is seen at sunset on Capitol Hill on Oct. 21 in Washington, D.C.
The Supreme Court is seen at sunset on Capitol Hill on Oct. 21 in Washington, D.C. (photo: Anna Moneymaker / Getty)

John Ramirez, a death-row inmate in Texas, has one last request: He wants his spiritual adviser, a Baptist pastor, to “lay hands on him” and recite vocal prayers during the execution. Prison officials have refused permission. 

On Nov. 1, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in his case, hoping to find the delicate balance between vindicating the religious freedom afforded Ramirez and the discretion due to the officials responsible for putting him to death. 

Whatever your views on the death penalty, there is no denying that Ramirez committed a truly horrifying crime. 

In 2004, Pablo Castro, a father of nine, was working the night shift at the Times Market convenience store in Corpus Christi. Shortly before the store was due to close, Castro went to empty the garbage. He was confronted by Ramirez, who then stabbed him 29 times, stole $1.25 from Castro’s pockets, and left him to bleed to death in the parking lot. 

Before the murder, Ramirez had spent three days drinking and using drugs. When he and two female companions ran out of drugs and money, they went driving in search of someone to rob so they could buy more drugs. Ramirez was on probation for a gun charge, and a warrant was out for his arrest at the time. 

After murdering Castro, Ramirez went on to rob two other victims using the same knife. One of the victims was a young mother with her 2-year-old son in the back seat of her car. Ramirez fled to Mexico and evaded capture for three years before being caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for Castro’s murder in 2008.

Over the past 12 years, Ramirez has returned to court repeatedly, both at the state and federal levels. His execution has been stayed three times. The most recent stay was issued by the Supreme Court on Sept. 8, the day Ramirez was scheduled to be put to death.   

The argument now is not over whether this murderer should be allowed to live, but the precise circumstances in which he dies. Like so many people facing the death sentence, Ramirez has found religion. Texas prison officials don’t have a problem with allowing Ramirez’s spiritual adviser, pastor Dana Moore, to be inside the death chamber at the time of the execution. 

State-employed chaplains or outside spiritual advisers who satisfy certain screening requirements are allowed into the death chamber under current execution protocols. But the rules also say that any behavior by the spiritual adviser that prison officials determine “to be disruptive to the execution procedures shall be cause for immediate removal.” The policy is silent on whether advisers may pray audibly or touch inmates during execution. The prison insists that in this case it’s not acceptable. 

Is that reasonable? Ramirez’s lawyers argue that Texas’ “method of execution” — namely preventing Moore from physically touching him and praying vocally at the time of execution — violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the free-exercise guarantee of the First Amendment. 

RLUIPA bars government authorities from imposing “a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution” unless it can show that burden is the least-restrictive means of furthering a “compelling government interest.” 

According to a 2015 decision by the Supreme Court, accommodations under RLUIPA must be made only for requests “sincerely based on a religious belief and not some other motivation.” 

Religious-freedom advocacy groups have filed amicus briefs in support of Ramirez. Becket, a law group that successfully represented before the court the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s foster-care program, submitted its amicus brief to “explain that the presence of clergy at executions — and their ability to pray aloud for and touch the condemned — is an ancient religious practice that our Constitution and laws protect from arbitrary government interference.” Stanford Law professor Michael McConnell, considered one of the country’s foremost First Amendment scholars, assisted in the drafting of Becket’s brief. 

Another religious-freedom group, Alliance Defending Freedom, asserts that “RLUIPA calls for strict scrutiny of governmental policies that substantially burden religious exercise, and even the execution chamber is not exempt from that demanding level of review.” Noted legal scholars, including professors Douglas Laycock and Helen Alvaré, have criticized Texas’ narrow interpretation of RLUIPA. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops have raised another consideration: the independent right under the First Amendment of religious entities to “minister to their congregants.” 

While claiming not to support either Ramirez or Texas, the Biden administration argues that Ramirez is “likely to succeed (at least in part) on his RLUIPA challenge to Texas’ categorical ban on audible prayer and laying of hands by a spiritual adviser in the execution chamber.” It maintains that “somewhat more accommodating practices of other jurisdictions — including the federal government — suggest that similarly effective, but less restrictive, alternatives to unqualified bans” may exist. It recommends that the court remand the case for further proceedings in the lower courts. The solicitor general’s office has been granted time to participate during oral argument.

Texas makes several compelling points. First, the state’s execution protocols balance multiple interests, including “uniformity in executions to reduce the opportunity for errors, the safety and privacy of execution personnel, the rights of the inmate, and closure for the victim’s family and the community.” 

An emotional amicus brief filed on behalf of Castro’s children specifically begs the court for the timely enforcement of Ramirez’s sentence to end “an ordeal that has denied peace and closure to Pablo Castro’s children for seventeen years.” 

Second, the state argues that Ramirez’s current request is motivated not by religious beliefs but instead by a desire for more delay. Chief Judge Priscilla Owen expressed similar concerns in her opinion concurring in a lower appellate court denial of a stay of execution. “Though I do not doubt the sincerity of Ramirez’s religious beliefs or those of his pastor, the shifting of Ramirez’s litigation posture indicates that the change in position is strategic and that delay is the goal.” 

And, finally, the state contends that barring physical touch and vocal prayers at the moment of execution is the “least-restrictive means” of achieving the state’s compelling interests. Regardless of your position on the death penalty (I am not a supporter), it is in everyone’s interest that there are no more botched executions.

Does the religious liberty afforded Ramirez under federal law and the Constitution include accommodations in the death chamber that conflict with the protocols drafted by prison officials tasked with the serious task of execution? The answer should be clear, but it isn’t. Perhaps this is why the Supreme Court made the extraordinary decision to request full briefing and hold oral argument before issuing its opinion.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is the director of the Conscience Project.

The US Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC (l) and St. Peter's Basilica

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