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Explainer: Religious liberty case for Texas inmate heard at the Supreme Court

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November 9, 2021

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments for a case titled Ramirez v. Collier. This is an important case for the religious liberty of death-row inmates and their ability to receive spiritual counsel in their last moments on earth.

What is this case about?

On Sept. 8, just hours before John Ramirez was to be executed for a murder in Corpus Christi, the Supreme Court granted a stay of the execution. Ramirez sued Texas prison officials in August for refusing to permit Dana Moore, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, to minister to him while he is executed. Ramirez requested that Moore be allowed to physically touch him and audibly pray in the execution chamber. The lower courts rejected his request to postpone his execution, but the Supreme Court justices granted a stay of execution and fast-tracked his appeal.  

Ramirez asserts that the state’s refusal to allow his pastor to touch him and pray aloud violates both the Constitution and RLUIPA, the federal law that applies to those in prison and guarantees their religious rights will be respected. The question before the court is “whether the government has satisfied its burden under RLUIPA to demonstrate that its blanket prohibition on clergy in the execution chamber engaging in audible prayer or laying on hands is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.” 

Brent Leatherwood, ERLC’s acting president, stated that “the high court should overrule Texas’ ban and allow this important and solemn moment of ministry to proceed. Religious freedom doesn’t end as you approach the moment of death, and we have joined a brief saying as much. The state has yet to make a compelling argument for why Pastor Moore, an SBC pastor, cannot minister to Mr. Ramirez in these final moments.”

What is RLUIPA, and how does it apply to this case?

RLUIPA stands for the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This federal law protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws. RLUIPA law also protects incarcerated individuals and states that “no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.”

Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), RLUIPA passed with strong bipartisan support. Incarcerated individuals ought to have religious protections while confined, and death-row inmates ought to be permitted spiritual guidance, counsel, and comfort in their final moments.

Why does this case matter? 

The right to have spiritual counsel and comfort is a centuries-old practice and must be respected and honored today. According to Becket Law, “Since before the colonial era, it was common for ministers to accompany the condemned to the gallows, where they would pray with, minister to, and touch those who are about to die. General George Washington honored such requests by deserters executed during the Revolution, and the United States also honored such requests by Nazi war criminals after the Nuremberg Trials.” Every person ought to have the opportunity to have a spiritual advisory with them in their final moments. 

This is not the first time an incarcerated individual has been denied access to a spiritual advisor. Becket stated,

“. . . in 2019 the State of Alabama denied a Muslim prisoner the presence and prayer of an imam before his execution. When the State of Texas attempted to do the same thing to a Buddhist prisoner just a few weeks later, the Supreme Court stepped in, ruling in Murphy v. Collier that Texas had to permit the prisoner’s Buddhist spiritual advisor to accompany him to the death chamber. Since then, the Supreme Court has similarly protected Christian prisoners in both Texas and Alabama. Despite these clear rulings and centuries of history, including its own traditional practices, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) recently imposed two rules – one preventing clergy from praying aloud and one preventing clergy from touching the inmate – contrary to centuries of tradition.”

How has the ERLC been involved?

The ERLC filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to protect the religious freedom of Ramirez, and allow him to have a Southern Baptist pastor lay hands on and pray for him when he receives a lethal injection. Our brief asserts that the state has failed to meet its burden, under RLUIPA, of demonstrating that refusing an inmate audible prayers and laying on off hands during his execution serves a compelling interest and does so by the least restrictive means. We also assert that there is little evidence that spiritual advisors present underlying security risks that would necessitate banning them from engaging in audible prayer or touching the prisoner

The ERLC is grateful that the Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments in this case and is hopeful that the court will rightly protect Ramirez’s ability to have a pastor present in his final moments. 

The ERLC engages our culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ in the public square to protect religious liberty and promote human flourishing. One of the ways we do this is by advocating for these things before the Supreme Court. While we’ve worked diligently and pray earnestly that the court will make decisions that uphold life, religious liberty, and the freedom of conscience, we ultimately place our trust in God to fulfill his plans and use the work of the ERLC along the way.