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  • Caroline McCord

Texas Executions Halted As Supreme Court Takes On Religious Freedom Case

Updated: Apr 24

Six men on Texas’ death row are currently in limbo regarding the date of their executions; they were set to be killed before the close of 2021 but their executions were delayed when the Supreme Court chose to hear arguments regarding John Henry Ramirez’ execution. The argument set forth by Ramirez could change the process and manner of executions at their very core, granting death row inmates the chance to be physically comforted and audibly prayed over by their spiritual ministers.

Clergy are currently allowed in Texas execution chambers as prisoners are killed, but they must stand motionless and silent in a corner of the room, a rule that some prisoners are now claiming violates their religious traditions. The Supreme Court has ruled on cases regarding religious freedom of inmates several times before, but the specific ruling they make for the Ramirez case will have a powerful impact on the last moments of inmates for years to come.

Ramirez v. Collier is the case that began arguments before the Supreme Court in November. John Henry Ramirez was convicted for the murder of convenience store worker Pablo Castro in 2004. Ramirez is a Christian who believes the corporal touch and vocal prayers of a pastor are necessary components for his spiritual transition from this life to the next. As such, his lawyer Seth Kretzner said the Texas ban on prayer and touch constitute a “spiritual gag order” and directly violates Ramirez’ freedom to express and practice his religion. Ramirez’ argument regarding his religious freedom was initially denied by lower appeals courts in Texas, but the Supreme Court, sticking to their recent pattern of taking up death row cases involving religious disputes, decided to review the case.

Opening arguments for Ramirez’ case began on November 9, but the Supreme Court has not yet reached a verdict. The court is split, with conservative judges like Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito claiming the sincerity of Ramirez’ plea is unclear, while other conservative justices, such as Amy Coney Barrett, worry that all religious traditions in prison could be denied if Ramirez’ request is ignored. Liberal justices, such as Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, so far remain supportive of Ramirez’ claim and skeptical about the purported danger of spiritual advising, aligning with the traditional liberal position regarding death row cases.

Legal scholar Douglas Laycock predicts that the Supreme Court will eventually settle perfectly along partisan lines and rule against Ramirez 6-3, citing the lower priority of religious freedom compared to LGBTQ+ rights (for liberals) and capital punishment (for conservatives). But for right now, the jury is still out (metaphorically, of course) and the historic Ramirez v. Collier case will likely not be decided for months.

Texas executes the most inmates in America by far, but the state’s execution process has experienced several challenges in the last few years. Texas inmate Patrick Murphy was granted a stay by the Supreme Court in March of 2019 because he was not going to be allowed a spiritual adviser with him at all as he died—he is a Buddhist and Texas only offered Muslim and Christian advisers at the time. Due to the controversy and in an effort to remove any further delays in the execution schedule, Texas opted to ban all clergy presence in execution chambers in April 2019. The ban was not without legal challenges nor was it ultimately effective. In June 2020 inmate Ruben Gutierrez received a stay of execution while the ban was in place when he successfully requested that a Catholic priest be allowed in the chamber with him as he died. Thus, this ban did not last, and spiritual advisers were allowed back into execution chambers (but without the ability to speak or touch) in April 2021, bringing Texas back to square one.

The case revolves around the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause. The Supreme Court must decide if the state has a legal obligation to accommodate prisoners’ religious requests, even if these requests are not integral nor necessary for their specific religion. Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, stated the central issue is “if Texas is substantially burdening the condemned prisoner’s free exercise of religion.” The Texas Attorney General’s office said that prisons inherently and rightfully limit inmates’ freedom and that being touched or spoken to by clergy could constitute a security risk; Ramirez’s lawyer said that the current rules are “hostile to religion, denying religious exercise at the precise moment it is most needed.”

Recent disputes about the religious freedom of death row inmates have not only been legal, but moral too. Russell Moore, a notable Christian ethicist, said this about Ramirez’ case: “The state of Texas is wrong...The Book of James calls upon help people to pray in moments in which it is very difficult to pray...and the execution chamber would certainly be one of those moments.” Conversely, Mark Skurka, who was the lead prosecutor in Ramirez’ 2008 trial, noted "Pablo Castro [the man whom Ramirez murdered] didn't get to have somebody praying over him as this guy stabbed him 29 times. Pablo Castro didn't get afforded such niceties and things like having a clergyman present."

These ideas about the current legal battle affecting Texas executions do not revolve solely around specific religious traditions or certain cases. Instead, they present two main ethical arguments surrounding the death penalty: should executions be moments to extend justice and charity to people who are murderers but still men, or should they be moments to focus on the victims and stand somberly by as retribution is carried out?

Regardless of the ethical and legal dilemmas that surround the death penalty, it is still thriving in Texas: 13 men were killed by the state in 2018, 8 men in 2019. But the Gutierrez and Ramirez cases have started a cascade effect, with the aforementioned six men currently on death row in Texas now using similar arguments to either make sure they die in accordance with their religious customs or, perhaps, simply as a tactic to delay their execution date.

Texas prosecutors are not alone in defending their state against alleged religious freedom violations; there was national uproar over the 2019 execution of Domineque Ray in Alabama, who died without a requested imam present after the Supreme Court failed to stay his execution. It is likely that this legal battle will continue into other states as the Supreme Court increasingly takes up cases that revolve around the First Amendment rights of those condemned to death, giving prisoners all over the country a chance to contest a process that they claim provides little spiritual support or religious freedom as they die.


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