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On The Front Lines

Supreme Court Asked to Decide if Spiritual Requests by Death Row Inmates Should Take Precedence Over Prison Protocol in the Execution Chamber

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a case that pits the spiritual requests of death row inmates against prison protocols, the U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to decide the extent to which, if at all, a prisoner’s right to religious freedom should be accommodated in the execution chamber. The case of Ramirez v. Collier, which involves a Texas death row inmate’s request to have his pastor touch him and pray out loud at the moment of his execution, highlights the disparate treatment regarding how spiritual care in the death chamber is administered, which has varied widely depending on the religion of the prisoner. Weighing in before the Court in Ramirez v. Collier, The Rutherford Institute joined with a broad coalition of legal and religious groups to advocate for the religious freedom rights of death row prisoners under the First Amendment and RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act). The Rutherford Institute was instrumental in the drafting and enactment of RLUIPA, which forbids states from imposing a substantial burden on the religious beliefs and practice of inmates unless there is a compelling reason for doing so.

Attorneys Thomas C. Berg of the University of St. Thomas School of Law’s Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic and Kimberlee Wood Colby of the Christian Legal Society advanced the arguments in the amicus brief for the coalition.

“No matter what religious belief is being exercised in the death chamber—whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or something else—government officials cannot favor one religion over another,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This scenario—where the government dictates which religious beliefs are worthy of being accommodated and which are not—is exactly why we have a clause in the First Amendment protecting religious freedom and prohibiting the government from establishing, or favoring, one religion over another.”

In 2008, John Henry Ramirez was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for the 2004 robbing, brutal stabbing and killing of 46-year-old Pablo Castro, a convenience store worker in Corpus Christi who was attacked while taking out the trash. Ramirez was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection on September 8, 2021. As part of his final rites, Ramirez asked that Dana Moore, the pastor of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, not only be present in the death chamber but also be able to touch him and pray out loud for him at the moment of execution. Prison officials denied Ramirez’s request, citing security risks and a lack of decorum. Hours before Ramirez was scheduled to be executed, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution, pending further review of his claims that government officials could have no compelling enough reason to deprive him of spiritual care in his final moments. The Ramirez case follows in the wake of a string of cases across the country in which death row inmates of varying religious beliefs (Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu) have had their requests for spiritual care in the execution chamber accommodated or denied seemingly based on whether doing so would be convenient for prison officials. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Ramirez v. Collier on November 9, 2021.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.

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