WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Texas may not for now execute a death row inmate unless his pastor can touch him and pray aloud in the execution chamber.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that states may institute limits on such practices but that outright bans are most likely unacceptable.
“We agree that the government has a compelling interest in preventing disruptions of any sort and maintaining solemnity and decorum in the execution chamber,” he wrote. But he said those concerns could be addressed with appropriate restrictions.
Those could include, the chief justice wrote, “limiting the volume of any prayer so that medical officials can monitor an inmate’s condition,” “requiring silence during critical points in the execution process,” “allowing a spiritual adviser to speak only with the inmate” and “subjecting advisers to immediate removal for failure to comply with any rule.”
“If the adviser is to touch the prisoner, the state might also specify where and for how long,” he wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying the court had rewarded litigation gamesmanship.
“It grants equitable relief for a demonstrably abusive and insincere claim filed by a prisoner with an established history of seeking unjustified delay,” he wrote.
The inmate, John Henry Ramirez, was sentenced to death for the murder of a convenience store worker in 2004. Mr. Ramirez stabbed the worker, Pablo Castro, 29 times in a robbery that yielded pocket change. “Castro died on the pavement, leaving behind nine children and 14 grandchildren,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
In prison, Mr. Ramirez forged a relationship with Dana Moore, the pastor of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. Mr. Ramirez asked that Mr. Moore be allowed to touch him and pray out loud with him as he dies.
When prison officials rejected his request, citing security concerns, Mr. Ramirez sued. He said the policy violated his right to exercise his faith at the moment when, as his lawyer put it in a brief, “most Christians believe they will either ascend to heaven or descend to hell — in other words, when religious instruction and practice is most needed.”
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that there was good reason to think that Mr. Ramirez’s religious requests were sincere.
“Ramirez seeks to have his pastor lay hands on him and pray over him during the execution,” the chief justice wrote. “Both are traditional forms of religious exercise.”
Indeed, he wrote, “there is a rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our nation.”
Judge David Hittner of the Federal District Court in Houston ruled against Mr. Ramirez, saying it was enough that prison officials intended to allow Mr. Moore “to stand nearby during the execution.” Courts should not become entangled, Judge Hittner wrote, in the minutiae of prison security procedures.
A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, upheld the lower court’s decision. In dissent, Judge James L. Dennis questioned Texas’ new policy, which permitted spiritual advisers to be present in the death chamber but prohibited them from touching or praying aloud with the condemned inmates.
“What purpose is there for allowing a spiritual adviser, like a pastor, to be present in the execution chamber if that pastor is prohibited from attending to the spiritual needs of the condemned during the final moments of his life, through audible prayer, physical touch or otherwise?” Judge Dennis wrote. “At the end of life, what does a pastor do but minister to and comfort his parishioner?”
In a concurring opinion on Thursday, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh described the various approaches the Supreme Court has taken to suits in which death row inmates asked that their spiritual advisers be present to comfort them during their executions.
The first cases, he wrote, concerned the equal treatment of prisoners of different faiths.
In 2019, for instance, the court allowed by a 5-to-4 vote the execution of an Alabama inmate, Domineque Ray, a Muslim whose request that his imam be present had been denied. At the time, Alabama allowed only a Christian chaplain employed by the prison system to offer spiritual guidance to condemned inmates during their last moments.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenters in 2019, said the majority was “profoundly wrong.” Under Alabama’s policy, she wrote, “a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites.”
“But if an inmate practices a different religion — whether Islam, Judaism or any other — he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side,” Justice Kagan wrote.
A few weeks later, the court confronted a similar case from Texas and came to a different conclusion, staying the execution of a Buddhist inmate whose request that his spiritual adviser be present in the execution chamber had been denied.
In a brief, unsigned order, the court said that Texas could not execute the inmate, Patrick H. Murphy, “unless the state permits Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual adviser or another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber during the execution.”
Those decisions could be reconciled, Justice Kavanaugh wrote, because only Mr. Murphy had raised his claim in a timely manner.
They established, Justice Kavanaugh wrote, “the bedrock religious equality principle” that “states could not allow religious advisers of some religions while excluding religious advisers of other religions.” But states remained free to bar all spiritual advisers from death chambers.
In a second set of cases, inmates argued that a federal law protecting religious liberty allowed spiritual advisers to attend and observe executions.
In one such case last year, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that halted the execution of an Alabama inmate, Willie B. Smith III, a Christian, unless the state allowed his pastor to be present.
“Alabama has not carried its burden of showing that the exclusion of all clergy members from the execution chamber is necessary to ensure prison security,” Justice Kagan wrote for four justices in a concurring opinion. “So the state cannot now execute Smith without his pastor present, to ease what Smith calls the ‘transition between the worlds of the living and the dead.’”
Mr. Ramirez’s case, Justice Kavanaugh wrote, represented a third kind of claim. “Ramirez not only wants a religious adviser in the execution room,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote. “He also wants the adviser to be able to engage in audible prayer and even to be able to physically touch him during the execution process.”
Justice Kavanaugh concluded his opinion with some advice to state corrections systems.
“To avoid persistent future litigation and the accompanying delays,” he wrote, “it may behoove states to try to accommodate an inmate’s timely and reasonable requests about a religious adviser’s presence and activities in the execution room if the states can do so without meaningfully sacrificing their compelling interests in safety, security and solemnity.”
“Doing so,” he wrote, “not only would help states avoid future litigation delays but also would serve the exceptionally powerful interests of victims’ families in finally obtaining closure.”