On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a Texas death row inmate who wants his pastor to pray over him and lay hands on him during his execution.
The state of Texas had blocked both requests by inmate John Ramirez, who is on death row for a murder committed in 2004.
Ramirez alleged that the state’s refusal to let his pastor pray out loud over him and lay hands on him while he is executed by lethal injection violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment. RLUIPA is a federal law that prohibits the government from imposing a “substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.”
A district court and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the request by Ramirez.
But the U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, ruled in his favor.
“We hold that Ramirez is likely to prevail on the merits of his RLUIPA claims, and that the other preliminary injunction factors justify relief,” Roberts wrote.
Ramirez had said in his grievance that “it is part of my faith to have my spiritual advisor lay hands on me anytime I am sick or dying.” His spiritual advisor, Pastor Dana Moore of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, had said prayer accompanied by touch is a “significant part of our faith tradition as Baptists.”
The Supreme Court said 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.”
“And during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington ordered that ‘prisoners under sentence of death’ ‘be attended with such Chaplains, as they choose’ – including at the time of their execution,” Roberts wrote. “… These chaplains often spoke and prayed with the condemned during their final moments.”
As for physically touching a death row inmate during an execution, the Supreme Court acknowledged there is a “compelling interest in preventing disruptions” but said “there is no indication in the record that Pastor Moore would cause the sorts of disruptions” the state fears.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending Ramirez, applauded the decision.
“Even the condemned have a right to get right with God,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “The Supreme Court correctly recognized that allowing clergy to minister to the condemned in their last moments stands squarely within a history stretching back to George Washington and before. That tradition matters.”
Supreme Court Skeptical of Death Row Inmate’s Request for Prayer during Execution
Photo courtesy: Adam Szuscik/Unsplash
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.