Supreme Court hears request for prayer during execution
WASHINGTON –The Supreme Court has just heard a Texas death row inmate’s request that the Justices protect his first freedom in his final hour. In Ramirez v. Collier, John Henry Ramirez has asked the Court to allow his spiritual advisor—a Southern Baptist pastor—to pray over him in the execution chamber, including laying hands on him. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the First Amendment and federal civil rights law require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to allow prisoners the right to meaningful clergy access in their final moments. This morning the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case. Becket’s brief, which was co-authored by Professor Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School and the Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic headed by Professor Josh McDaniel, was mentioned at oral argument.
“Apparently everything really is bigger in Texas, even the mistakes,” said Eric Rassbach, VP & senior counsel at Becket. “And Texas is making a doozy by trying to stop condemned prisoners from getting right with God in their final minutes. Centuries of precedent and the example of the federal government and other states show there’s no good reason for Texas to deny Ramirez’s final request for his pastor to pray over him. The Supreme Court should reaffirm that a religious freedom George Washington himself protected is still protected by the First Amendment.”
Prior to 2019, Texas’ policy allowed Christian and Muslim chaplains into the death chamber. In 2019, TDCJ denied prisoner Patrick Murphy’s request that his Buddhist priest be allowed into the execution chamber, but after Becket filed a brief, the Supreme Court halted the execution. TDCJ responded by blocking spiritual advisors of all faiths from the execution chamber. After another Supreme Court ruling in favor of a prisoner supported by Becket, TDCJ’s policy now allows chaplains to be in the execution chamber, but still prohibits any spoken prayer or slight contact with the inmate.
As Becket’s brief shows in detail, TDCJ’s ban on pastors praying aloud for the condemned or laying hands on them runs contrary to centuries of religious practice, and even TDCJ’s own practices up until 2019.
The Court will likely decide the case sometime in the next few months.
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