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Top Quotes: Supreme Court affirms religious freedom of Texas inmate

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March 24, 2022

In an affirmation of religious liberty, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Ramirez v. Collier on March 24 that Mr. Ramirez should be allowed to have his Southern Baptist pastor pray aloud and lay hands on him as he is executed. The court found that Mr. Ramirez “is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims because Texas’s restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the State’s compelling interests.” In this ruling the court reversed and remanded the decision of the Fifth Circuit and provided direction for the lower courts to ensure that Ramirez’s religious liberty is protected in the final moments of his life.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion joined by Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justices Sotomayor and Kavanaugh wrote concurring opinions. Justice Thomas authored the sole dissenting opinion.

This is a significant win for religious liberty and for Ramirez’s ability to have his Southern Baptist pastor in the execution chamber with him, audibly praying and laying hands on him. The Supreme Court affirmed that religious freedom does not end at the execution chamber door.

Below are key quotes from both the majority opinion and concurrence as well as Thomas’ dissent, highlighting how the court reached its decision. Page numbers from the court’s decision are given for each quote, but legal citations are omitted for clarity of reading.

For more details on the religious liberty issues present in this case, see our explainer here.

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From the Syllabus

“Ramirez alleged that the refusal of prison officials to allow his pastor to lay hands on him in the execution chamber violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment. Ramirez sought preliminary and permanent injunctive relief barring state officials from executing him unless they granted the requested religious accommodation.” (1)

“Ramirez is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims because Texas’s restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the State’s compelling interests.” (2)

“The question before the Court 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. To obtain the relief Ramirez seeks—relief that the parties agree is properly characterized as a preliminary injunction—Ramirez ‘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.’ ” (2)

“Given the current record, the State has not shown that it is likely to carry the burden of demonstrating that its refusal to accommodate Ramirez’s religious exercise is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interests.” (3)

“Ramirez is likely to succeed in proving that his religious requests are ‘sincerely based on a religious belief.’ Both the laying on of hands and prayer are traditional forms of religious exercise, and Ramirez’s pastor confirmed that prayer accompanied by touch is a significant part of their shared faith tradition. Neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals doubted that Ramirez had a sincere religious basis for his requests. Texas’s argument to the contrary—which stems from a complaint Ramirez filed in 2020 in which he sought his pastor’s presence and prayer in the chamber, but disclaimed any need for touch—does not outweigh ample evidence of the sincerity of Ramirez’s beliefs. Respondents do not dispute that any burden their policy imposes on Ramirez’s religious exercise is substantial.” (3)

“The Court rejects the prison officials’ threshold contention that Ramirez cannot succeed on his claims because he failed to exhaust all available remedies before filing suit as mandated by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995. In the context of Texas’s grievance system, the Court finds Ramirez properly exhausted administrative remedies. Ramirez tried (unsuccessfully) to resolve the issue informally with a prison chaplain. He then filed a Step 1 grievance requesting that his pastor be allowed to “ ‘lay hands on me’ & pray over me while I am being executed.” Prison officials denied that grievance, and Ramirez timely appealed. His Step 2 grievance reiterated the same requests. Ramirez’s grievances thus ‘clearly stated’ that he wished to have his pastor touch him and pray with him during his execution.” (2)

“Timely resolution of RLUIPA claims in the prisoner context could be facilitated if States were to adopt policies anticipating likely issues and streamlined procedures for resolving requests. It should be the rare RLUIPA capital case that requires last-minute resort to the federal courts.” (5)

“We hold that Ramirez is likely to prevail on the merits of his RLUIPA claims, and that the other preliminary injunction factors justify relief. If Texas reschedules Ramirez’s execution and declines to permit audible prayer or religious touch, the District Court should therefore enter appropriate preliminary relief. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinions” (22)

Majority Opinion: Chief Justice Roberts

“We are persuaded—at least in the current posture of the case—that Ramirez properly exhausted these administrative remedies.” (7)

“Respondents also argue that Ramirez failed to properly exhaust his request for audible prayer in the execution chamber. The gist of their argument is that while his grievances clearly requested prayer, they did not clearly requestaudible prayer. We disagree. Ramirez asked that prison officials permit his pastor to ‘lay hands’ on him and ‘pray over’ him during the execution. While it is true that this language did not explicitly reference ‘audible’ prayer, the language adequately conveyed such a request for several reasons. First, if Ramirez had merely wanted silent prayer, his grievance need not have mentioned prayer at all. He and his pastor could have prayed silently and no one would have been the wiser. Second, praying aloud is a common type of Christian prayer that people engage in together.” (8)

“Ramirez seeks to have his pastor lay hands on him and pray over him during the execution. Both are traditional forms of religious exercise. Pastor Moore, who has ministered to Ramirez for four years, agrees that prayer accompanied by touch is ‘a significant part of our faith tradition as Baptists.’ (10-11)

“As for audible prayer, 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. For example, at Newgate Prison—one of London’s most notorious jails—an Anglican priest would stand and pray with the condemned in their final moments…Prayer at the time of execution was also commonplace in the American Colonies. 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…When, for example, the Federal Government executed four members of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the prisoners were accompanied by clergy of various denominations.” (12-13)

Additionally, the balance of equities and public interest tilt in Ramirez’s favor. Ramirez ‘does not seek an open ended stay of execution.’ Rather, he requests a tailored injunction requiring that Texas permit audible prayer and religious touch during his execution. By passing RLUIPA, Congress determined that prisoners like Ramirez have a strong interest in avoiding substantial burdens on their religious exercise, even while confined. At the same time, ‘[b]oth the State and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence. Because it is possible to accommodate Ramirez’s sincere religious beliefs without delaying or impeding his execution, we conclude that the balance of equities and the public interest favor his requested relief.’” (19)

“If States adopt clear rules in advance, it should be the rare case that requires last-minute resort to the federal courts. If such cases do arise and a court determines that relief is appropriate under RLUIPA, the proper remedy is an injunction ordering the accommodation, not a stay of the execution. This approach balances the State’s interest in carrying out capital sentences without delay and the prisoner’s interest in religious exercise.”(21)

“We hold that Ramirez is likely to prevail on the merits of his RLUIPA claims, and that the other preliminary injunction factors justify relief. If Texas reschedules Ramirez’s execution and declines to permit audible prayer or religious touch, the District Court should therefore enter appropriate preliminary relief. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” (22)

Concurring — Justice Sotomayor

“Under the [Prison Litigation Reform Act] PLRA, prison officials and incarcerated individuals share an obligation to act in good faith in resolving disputes: Incarcerated individuals must timely raise their claims through the prison grievance system, and prison officials must ensure that the system is a functioning one. To that end, the PLRA requires incarcerated individuals to exhaust the prison’s administrative grievance process before turning to the courts only where that process is actually ‘available.’” (1)

“Availability is a practical determination that requires considering both whether the administrative system is accessible as designed and whether concurring prison administrators and officers ensure meaningful access to it in practice.” (1-2)

“Timely notice of policies is essential to ensure the ability to timely raise, or seek informal resolution of, any claims related to those policies. It also raises questions that the prison took 39 days to deny Ramirez’s Step 2 grievance, even though the prison had considered and rejected his request previously and maintains that its established policies foreclosed it. Such delay creates an impression, whether valid or not, that the prison is trying to ‘thwart inmates from taking advantage of [the] grievance process’ and cut short their opportunity to obtain judicial review.” (2)

Concurring — Justice Kavanaugh

“The question of religious advisors in the execution room came to this Court three years ago as a question of religious equality. Some States had long permitted state-employed chaplains in the execution room. But those state-employed chaplains were mostly Christian. Those States did not allow inmates to have their own religious advisors in the room. Therefore, a Christian inmate could have the state-employed Christian chaplain in the room, but a Buddhist inmate, for example, could not have a Buddhist religious advisor in the room. The Court correctly determined that this practice constituted unlawful religious discrimination because it treated inmates of different religions differently.” (1)

“Importantly, however, the Court does not merely point to its own policy assessment of how much risk the State must tolerate in the execution room. The Court also relies in part on the history of religious advisors at executions. To be sure, the Court acknowledges that some of the history is not precisely on point because many executions historically were outdoor public hangings where the presence of religious advisors did not raise the same risks to safety, security, and solemnity that their presence in a small execution room does. And some of the other history involved state employed chaplains, who arguably do not raise the same risks to safety, security, and solemnity as outsiders in the execution room. Still, the history generally demonstrates that religious advisors have often been present at executions. And perhaps even more relevant, the Federal Government and some States have recently allowed inmates’ religious advisors into the execution room. Those religious advisors have been allowed to engage in audible prayer and limited touching of the inmate without apparent problems. See ante, at 13–14. As the Court explains, experience matters in assessing whether less restrictive alternatives could still satisfy the State’s compelling interest.” (6)

Dissenting — Justice Thomas

“This Court granted equitable relief in September, and today it grants further relief pending proceedings below. Ramirez presses two reasons why he merited—and continues to merit—our intervention in Texas’ enforcement of his capital sentence. First, he argues that the State would violate RLUIPA by prohibiting his pastor from ‘laying hands’ on him during his execution. Second, he argues that the State would violate the same statute by prohibiting his pastor from audibly praying during the execution. I do not think either claim warranted relief on September 8. Nor do I think either claim warrants further relief now.” (5)

“Because of the prevalence of vexatious death penalty litigation, a court sitting in equity ‘must’ consider whether a condemned criminal has made an ‘attempt at manipulation’ that would disqualify him from equitable relief. Federal courts faced with abusive litigation ‘can and should’ use their ‘equitable powers’ to protect state judgments and sentences.” (7-8)

“Today, this Court should have denied equitable relief to a prisoner who has acted inequitably—as both the District Court and Court of Appeals did before us. Ramirez’s shifting litigation position lays bare what he really wants: ‘to manipulate the judicial process’ to win further delay. The record all but speaks for itself. In August 2020, when Ramirez first demanded that Texas allow his pastor into the chamber, he explicitly avowed that his pastor ‘need not touch’ him ‘at any time in the execution chamber.’ Taking Ramirez at his word, Texas eventually acquiesced. But then Ramirez flipped his position and filed another administrative grievance and §1983 complaint demanding what he had earlier disclaimed: touching in the execution chamber. This is a textbook example of dilatory and abusive ‘piecemeal litigation’ against which we have warned courts in equity to guard. Like Chief Judge Owen, I think that the shift in Ramirez’s litigation posture alone justifies denying equitable relief because it ‘indicates that the change in position is strategic and that delay is the goal.’”(8)

“A court balancing the equities must consider that ‘[b]oth the State and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence.’” (11)

“The equitable balance here tilts decisively in favor of the State and Ramirez’s victims. Texans, acting through their elected representatives, have decided that certain crimes range so far beyond what a civilized society will accept that only a death sentence will suffice. Ramirez long has denied Texas its sovereign interest in seeing that sentence carried out ‘fairly and expeditiously.’” (12)