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Ruling on pastor in execution chamber shows Supreme Court’s commitment to religious freedom

Written by William C. Duncan

March 30, 2022

In Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, Stephen Covey observed: “The key to your family culture is how you treat the child that tests you the most.”

Constitutional rights are often the same – our commitment to protecting these rights is often determined by our willingness to extend them in difficult circumstances.

That is a good way of understanding an important Supreme Court decision, Ramirez v. Collier, from last week. The case involved a prisoner, John Ramirez, scheduled to be executed for a heinous murder committed in 2004. Through a series of procedural tactics, he has been able to prevent his execution from being carried out since it was first scheduled in 2017.

In February 2021, the state of Texas informed Ramirez that he would be executed on Sept. 8, 2021. He asked the state to allow a “spiritual advisor” to be present in the death chamber, and the state initially declined but then relented. Ramirez then asked “that his pastor be permitted to ‘lay hands’ on him and ‘pray over’ him while the execution was taking place.”

Texas’ decisions were based in part on other Supreme Court decisions related to other executions. As explained in last week’s decision, a few years ago Texas had “barred all spiritual advisors from entering” the death chamber. The state then allowed chaplains employed by the state but it “employed only Christian and Muslim chaplains. In 2019, when a Buddhist inmate sought to have his spiritual advisor join him in the execution chamber, Texas declined to grant the accommodation.” The Supreme Court ordered a halt to execution “unless the State allowed a Buddhist spiritual advisor into the execution chamber.” Texas then decided “to bar all chaplains from entering the execution chamber, so as not to discriminate among religions.”

In two separate cases, the Supreme Court would not allow scheduled executions unless requested spiritual advisors were present. As a result, Texas began allowing these advisors at executions. This new policy resolved Ramirez’s request, but he made an additional one – “that his long-time pastor be allowed to pray with him and lay hands on him while he is being executed.” Texas denied this request, leading to last week’s Supreme Court decision.

Ramirez’s claim was that the denial of his request violated a federal religious freedom law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This law prohibits a government from imposing a “substantial burden” on the religious practice of prisoners unless it can show that the burden advances “a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The court could easily determine that the denial of Ramirez’s request was a substantial burden on his religious practice because state officials did “not dispute that any burden their policy imposes on Ramirez’s religious exercise is substantial.”

The court then had to determine if the state’s reasons for the denial were compelling. The state had offered two reasons not to allow audible prayers by the spiritual advisor. First, the need for “absolute silence … in the execution chamber so they can monitor the inmate’s condition through a microphone suspended overhead.” Second, “preventing disruptions of any sort and maintaining solemnity and decorum in the execution chamber.”

The court accepted that these reasons were compelling but determined that the state could secure these interests without totally preventing the prayer. For instance, “both the Federal Government and Alabama have recently permitted audible prayer or speech in the execution chamber” and the court believed Texas could limit the volume or timing of the prayer.

In regard to the ban on “religious touch,” the court also accepted that the state’s interests were compelling. These interests, “security in the execution chamber, preventing unnecessary suffering, and avoiding further emotional trauma to the victim’s family members,” could also be secured in some way short of an outright ban.

The state could, for instance, train advisors so they don’t interfere with the procedure, or position the advisor so he or she would not be in the way.

The court addressed the concern that these types of cases could indefinitely delay executions:

If States adopt clear rules in advance, it should be the rare case that requires last-minute resort to the federal courts. If such cases do arise and a court determines that relief is appropriate under RLUIPA, the proper remedy is an injunction ordering the accommodation, not a stay of the execution. This approach balances the State’s interest in carrying out capital sentences without delay and the prisoner’s interest in religious exercise.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested that states:

try to accommodate an inmate’s timely and reasonable requests about a religious advisor’s presence and activities in the execution room if the States can do so without meaningfully sacrificing their compelling interests in safety, security, and solemnity. Doing so not only would help States avoid future litigation delays but also would serve the exceptionally powerful interests of victims’ families in finally obtaining closure.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenting vote. Thomas argued that the pattern of events in this case, which had delayed execution for seven years, demonstrated that Ramirez’s request was just an attempt to continue delaying. To Thomas, this demonstrated “a demonstrably abusive and insincere claim filed by a prisoner with an established history of seeking unjustified delay, harming the State and Ramirez’s victims in the process.”

Thomas may very well be right about the intent. The majority’s willingness to go to great lengths to treat the request as sincere and to accommodate it in any way possible are a powerful sign of the court’s commitment to protect religious freedom, a commitment that honors the constitutional prioritization of this right.

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