October 3, 2022
Supreme Court to consider religious rights for death row inmates
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday will consider whether the Constitution gives prisoners facing execution the right to have spiritual advisers in the death chamber who can pray aloud and be in physical contact with them.The court took the case after it blocked the execution of a Texas inmate, John Henry Ramirez, whose lethal…

WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s Supreme Court hearing will examine whether the Constitution allows prisoners facing execution to have spiritual advisors in their death chamber. They can pray aloud as well as be in physical contact.

The case was taken by the court after it stopped John Henry Ramirez’s execution in Texas. His lethal injection was set for September. He claimed that the state violated his religious rights when it refused to allow his pastor to pray audibly or perform a tradition called laying on hands.

The court has been increasingly concerned in recent years about claims states are denying religious freedom to inmates who face the death penalty. Texas has also repeatedly modified its protocols. Another Texas inmate claimed that his religious freedom had been violated by the fact that his Buddhist spiritual advisor was not allowed to be with him. The execution of 2019 was stopped by the court.

Texas responded by banning all spiritual advisors from the execution chamber. Last year, a Texas court stopped the execution of an inmate who challenged the no-advisors policy. This prompted the state to alter its policy while still allowing prayer aloud and physical contact.

Ramirez stated that he and his pastor believed that people can either ascend to heaven, or descend to hell at the moment they die. He claimed that denying his pastor traditional minstrations was a violation of religious liberty.

These traditions are deeply rooted within Ramirez’s sincere religious beliefs. They “reflect the fundamental significance of prayer, song and human touch as powerful expressionss of Christian faith,” his lawyer stated in court filings.

Texas allows spiritual advisors to counsel and pray with inmates, until they are taken into the lethal injection room. The state stated that preventing them from touching or speaking with inmates during execution prevents distress signs from being detected.

The protocol balances many factors according to Texas lawyers. They include “maintaining uniformity during executions to reduce errors, the safety of execution personnel, the privacy of execution personnel and the rights of inmates, as well as closure for the victim’s family and community. “

Allowing an outsider to touch an execution inmate “poses a unacceptable risk to security, integrity and solemnity for the execution,” said the state.

Nine other states — Alabama and Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho. Louisiana, Montana. South Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Louisiana — asked the court to support Texas. In a friend-of the-court brief, they stated that federal court micromanagement should not affect state execution protocols’ safety and security.

But many religious organizations, including U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated that the Texas prohibition hinders religious freedom, not only of inmates, but also of pastors who are involved in key ministry actions.

Ramirez received a death sentence for fatally stabbing a man 29 during a convenience-store robbery after a drug binge. He fled to Mexico, but was captured and brought back for trial. The Supreme Court will likely issue its ruling by July.

Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.

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