The Supreme Court weighs case of death row inmate’s wish for pastor’s touch


Lina Bhatti

Date published: Mon, 6 December 21


In DC, the Supreme Court is hearing the case of a condemned inmate’s, John Ramirez, wish for a pastor to touch and pray aloud with him in the death chamber. Some justices argued that the request was the inmate’s right to practice his faith in his last moments, whereas other justices argued that ruling in favor of the inmate would allow an “unending stream of lawsuits requesting all sorts of religious accommodations.” 

Although rules vary state by state, most states have instituted rules that allow only Christian leaders in the death chamber. In 2019, Dominique Ray requested the presence of an imam in Alabama. The state only allowed a prison-employed chaplain to be with inmates. The case quickly was heard by the Supreme Court, who denied it on the grounds that Ray did not file the request early enough. In Texas, Patrick Murphy requested a Buddhist spiritual leader. Similar to Alabama, Texas did not allow spiritual advisors other than prison-appointed chaplains, who are always Christian.

 

When these requests are left undecided, the court can rule to halt the execution date. For Murphy’s case, the court prohibited Texas from executing a Buddhist prisoner until he was allowed to have a Buddhist priest by his side.

From the court’s perspective, there is further ambiguity in the decisions that have been made over the past years in regards to the presence of religious leaders, advisors in the death chamber. After the court’s order in the Murphy case, Texas excluded all spiritual advisors from the death chamber. This led to Ruben Gutierrez, a Catholic inmate, to go to federal court to challenge this new policy. In June 2020, the Supreme Court halted Gutierrez’s execution and directed the district court to determine whether allowing spiritual advisors would jeopardize security, to which the district court concluded that security would not be jeopardized in the execution chamber. This led to Texas revising its policy again to allow spiritual advisors in the execution chamber. 

The current case of Ramirez, then, is an attempt for Ramirez to be physically touched by a pastor, and to audibly pray with the pastor. In the various courts before the case’s hearing in the Supreme Court, there have been rulings that this is an attempt by Ramirez to hold off on execution. Ramirez seeks “a narrow but vitally important, remedy essential to his religious faith.” 

Justice Kavanaugh said regarding an execution, that it is “a very fraught situation with a lot of potential for issues.”