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Court blocks execution, will weigh in on inmate’s religious-liberty claims

CAPITAL CASE

The Supreme Court agreed to postpone the execution of John Ramirez, who was scheduled to die on Wednesday night in Texas. The last-minute respite will allow the justices to fully consider Ramirez’s request that his pastor be allowed to physically touch Ramirez and audibly pray in the execution chamber while Ramirez is put to death.

Ramirez’s emergency application was the latest in a series of shadow-docket requests in the past two years involving spiritual advisers at executions. But the justices are now poised to weigh in more definitively on the rights of inmates to have spiritual advisers at their side in their final moments: In the brief order putting Ramirez’s execution on hold, the court agreed to hear Ramirez’s appeal on its regular docket this fall.

Ramirez, who was sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of convenience-store clerk Pablo Castro, asked to have his Baptist pastor, Dana Moore, put his hands on Ramirez’s body and pray out loud as Ramirez is executed. After Texas refused to grant that request, Ramirez went to federal court in August. The district court rejected Ramirez’s bid to postpone his execution last week, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit turned down his plea to intervene.

The four cases that have previously reached the court centered on whether spiritual advisers could be present in the execution chamber at all. In February 2019, the court permitted Alabama to execute a Muslim man, Domineque Ray, after the state refused to allow Ray to have an imam at his side in the execution chamber, even though the state at that time allowed a Christian chaplain in the chamber. In its brief order, the court noted that Ray had sought relief only 10 days before his scheduled execution.

One month later, the court prohibited Texas from executing a Buddhist prisoner, Patrick Murphy, unless he was allowed to have a Buddhist priest at his side. In an opinion agreeing with the decision to block Murphy’s execution, Justice Brett Kavanaugh emphasized that, under the state’s policy in effect at the time, Muslim and Christian inmates were allowed to have spiritual advisers in the execution chamber with them, but inmates of other faiths – like Murphy – were not. Although Texas may have good reasons to limit access to the execution chamber, Kavanaugh acknowledged, the solution would be to exclude all spiritual advisers from the chamber, rather than distinguishing among inmates based on their religion.

After the court’s order in Murphy’s case, Texas initially adopted a new policy that excluded all spiritual advisers from the execution chamber. That led a Catholic inmate, Ruben Gutierrez, to go to federal court to challenge the new policy. In June 2020, the Supreme Court put Gutierrez’s execution on hold and directed the district court to determine whether allowing an inmate to choose his spiritual adviser would jeopardize security at the execution. In January 2021, after the district court concluded that it would not, the Supreme Court sent Gutierrez’s case back to the lower courts for them to take another look at the case in light of those findings. Texas later revised its policy again to allow spiritual advisers in the execution chamber.

And finally, in February 2021, the court barred Alabama from executing Willie Smith III unless it allowed him to have his pastor by his side in the execution chamber.

Ramirez’s case involved a slightly different issue: what kind of aid a spiritual adviser can (and cannot) provide during an execution. Ramirez came to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, asking the justices to put his execution on hold and to review his case on the merits. He stressed that his filing was not a last-minute effort to delay his execution, because he had first raised the spiritual-adviser question over a year ago. The state’s refusal to allow Moore to touch him and pray out loud, Ramirez argued, violates both his constitutional rights and the federal law guaranteeing religious rights for inmates. Under the Texas policy, Ramirez emphasized in his reply brief on Wednesday, the execution chamber would be “a godless vacuum,” with Moore “no different from a potted plant.”

Texas countered that Ramirez had failed to follow the procedures required by the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act before bringing his lawsuit – specifically, he should have asked prison officials for permission for Moore to pray out loud before filing the lawsuit. And in any event, Texas continued, Ramirez cannot prevail because he has to do more than simply allege that having Moore’s physical touch and audible prayers during his execution are “necessary to his faith tradition.” Ramirez must also, the state contended, show that Texas’ policy places a substantial burden on his religious exercise. But Texas isn’t forcing Ramirez to do anything that violates his religion, the state insisted; it is simply declining to accommodate all of his religious needs, which is not a substantial burden. And if the Supreme Court grants Ramirez’s request, Texas warned, federal courts will wind up having to “micromanage” all of the details of future executions.

In an order issued shortly before 10 p.m. EDT, the justices agreed to stay Ramirez’s execution and to hear his appeal on the merits. The court indicated that the case should be fast-tracked, with oral argument set for either October or November. There were no public dissents from Wednesday’s order.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court.

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