US Supreme Court rules death row prisoner may have pastor touch him and pray out loud during execution
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US Supreme Court rules death row prisoner may have pastor touch him and pray out loud during execution

The US Supreme Court Thursday ruled 8-1 that a Texas death row inmate may have his pastor touch him and pray out loud during his execution.

Petitioner John Henry Ramirez argued that Texas’ refusal to allow a spiritual advisor to lay hands on him or recite prayers and scripture as he is executed substantially burdens his free exercise of religion as protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). His scheduled execution in September 2021 was stayed pending the Supreme Court’s decision.

In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court held “that Ramirez is likely to prevail on the merits of his RLUIPA claims, and that the other preliminary injunction factors justify relief. If Texas reschedules Ramirez’s execution and declines to permit audible prayer or religious touch, the District Court should therefore enter appropriate preliminary relief.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanaugh each filed concurring opinions. Sotomayor wrote separately “to underscore the interaction between prison officials’ obligations to set such rules and the exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Kavanaugh wrote separately “to add three points: one about the recent history of litigation involving religious advisors in execution rooms; a second about the difficulty of applying RLUIPA’s compelling interest and least restrictive means standards; and a third about state execution procedures going forward.”

Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, stating:

Petitioner John Henry Ramirez stabbed Pablo Castro 29 times during a robbery that netted $1.25. Castro bled to death in a parking lot. Since that day, Ramirez has manufactured more than a decade of delay to evade the capital sentence lawfully imposed by the State of Texas. This Court now affords yet another chance for him to delay his execution. Because I think Ramirez’s claims either do not warrant equitable relief or are procedurally barred, I respectfully dissent.

Texas officials indicated they would be modifying their policies to comply with Thursday’s decision.