Press Release

Supreme Court protects prayer in death chamber Pastor allowed to pray over condemned during execution

Media Contact

Ryan Colby 202-349-7219 media@becketlaw.org

Additional Information

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court has just protected the right of pastors to pray over the condemned in the execution chamber. In Ramirez v. Collier, John Henry Ramirez 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 Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is required to allow prisoners the right to meaningful clergy access in their final moments. This morning the Supreme Court agreed with Becket’s argument. 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 cited extensively by Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion for the Court to explain the “rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our Nation.”

“Even the condemned have a right to get right with God,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president & senior counsel at Becket. “The Supreme Court correctly recognized that allowing clergy to minister to the condemned in their last moments stands squarely within a history stretching back to George Washington and before. That tradition matters.”

Prior to 2019, Texas’ policy allowed Christian and Muslim clergy 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 friend-of-the-court brief, the Supreme Court halted the execution. TDCJ responded by blocking clergy of all faiths from the execution chamber. After another Supreme Court ruling in favor of a second prisoner supported by Becket, TDCJ changed course again, allowing clergy to be in the execution chamber, but prohibiting any spoken prayer or slight contact with the inmate. Today’s ruling said that TDCJ’s policy of silencing clergy runs afoul of federal civil rights law.

As Becket’s brief showed 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 until 2019.

Coauthor Prof. McConnell is a frequent advocate before the Supreme Court, a professor of law at Stanford Law School, the head of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, and a former judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The Harvard Law School Religious Freedom Clinic, founded in Fall 2020, gives law students hands-on experience providing pro bono legal services in matters addressing many different religious practices.

Becket will host a press call at 11:45 a.m. ET to discuss the opinion.

Press Call Information:
Dial 312-626-6799 (Meeting ID: 849 8489 2727) or
join https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84984892727

Email questions in advance to media@becketlaw.org

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.