Condemned man wins case seeking pastor’s touch and prayer during execution

Prison Credit: OFFSTOCK/Shutterstock.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of an inmate who requested that his pastor pray aloud and “lay hands” on him during his execution. The justices decided the case, Ramirez v. Collier, in an 8-to-1 ruling on Thursday. 

Becket, a law firm dedicated to religious liberty that filed an amicus brief in the case, celebrated the decision.

“Even the condemned have a right to get right with God,” Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a prepared statement. “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.”

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion of the court, with Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett joining. 

Sotomayor and Kavanaugh filed additional, concurring opinions, while Justice Clarence Thomas dissented. 

The justices, especially Thomas, took care to detail the context of the case. A Texas jury sentenced John Ramirez to death after he murdered a convenience store worker, Pablo Castro, in 2004. Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times during a robbery during which he and his accomplices stole $1.25 from the pockets of the victim. He then left Castro, a father of nine, to bleed to death in a parking lot. 

Ramirez, who identifies as Christian, asked for his pastor to be present during his execution, originally scheduled for September 2021. Texas initially denied his request, but then changed its protocol and allowed the pastor — Pastor Dana Moore from the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi — to be present.

Later, Ramirez requested that his pastor “lay hands” on him and pray with him as he died. He turned to the courts for support when Texas denied the request in July. The Supreme Court intervened and agreed to hear his case just hours before his execution was set to take place. The court heard oral arguments in the case on Nov. 9.  

“The question is whether Ramirez’s execution without the requested participation of his pastor should be halted, pending full consideration of his claims on a complete record,” the majority opinion released Thursday reads. “The parties agree that the relief sought is properly characterized as a preliminary injunction. Under such circumstances, the party seeking relief ‘must establish that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.’” 

The court holds that Ramirez “is likely to prevail on the merits of his RLUIPA [Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000] claims, and that the other preliminary injunction factors justify relief.”

The RLUIPA, the court says, “provides that ‘[n]o government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution’—including state prisoners—‘even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.’” 

In his dissent, Thomas accuses the court, among other things, of granting “equitable relief for 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.”

In an amicus, or “friend-of-the-court” brief, Becket argued that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) must allow prisoners the right to meaningful clergy access in their final moments. The court’s opinion cited Becket’s brief extensively, the firm noted, to explain the “rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our Nation.”

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