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On The Front Lines

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Inmate’s Right to Have Pastor Pray, Lay Hands on Him in Execution Chamber


Ramirez v. Collier:

Amicus brief

Supreme Court opinion

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the debate over when and how government officials should accommodate the spiritual requests of death row inmates when pitted against prison protocols, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a death row inmate’s request to have his pastor audibly pray and lay hands on him in the execution chamber. In an 8-1 ruling in Ramirez v. Collier, the Supreme Court affirmed that the laying on of hands and prayer are traditional forms of religious exercise, and that any safety concerns by prison officials could be addressed through less restrictive policies than its complete ban against audible prayer and religious touch.

Weighing in before the Court in Ramirez, 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.

“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.

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. While the prison recognized that it must allow a spiritual advisor to be present with Ramirez and that it could take certain safety precautions, 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 were unnecessarily depriving him of spiritual care in his final moments. In concluding that Ramirez is likely to prevail on his claim under RLUIPA, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts for further proceedings should prison officials continue to prohibit any audible prayer or religious touch by Ramirez’s pastor during his execution. 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.

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 Ramirez v. Collier.

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.

Case History

November 4, 2021 • Supreme Court Asked to Decide if Spiritual Requests by Death Row Inmates Should Take Precedence Over Prison Protocol in the Execution Chamber


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