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Supreme Court to weigh in on religious rights of prisoners facing execution

The court heard arguments over whether a death row inmate has the right to have a spiritual adviser in the death chamber who can pray aloud and be in physical contact with them.
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The Supreme Court struggled Tuesday with whether federal law gives prisoners facing execution the right to have spiritual advisers in the death chamber who can pray aloud and touch them.

The court took the case after blocking the execution of a Texas inmate, John Henry Ramirez, whose lethal injection was scheduled for early September. He said the state violated his religious rights by refusing to let his pastor pray audibly with him or perform a tradition known as laying on hands.

During 90 minutes of courtroom argument, some of the court's conservatives said they worried that a ruling for Ramirez, who wants his pastor to be able to touch his foot during the procedure, would lead to a flood of lawsuits from inmates making a series of changing demands.

"We can look forward to an unending stream of variation," said Brett Kavanaugh.

Samuel Alito had similar concerns. "Are we going to have to go through the entire human anatomy" to determine what part of an inmate's body a pastor can touch without interfering with the execution?

Judd Stone, the Texas Solicitor General, said Ramirez was merely trying to delay his execution by shifting explanations of his religious needs and asking for a pastor to be present in the death chamber.

But Chief Justice John Roberts wondered how the courts are supposed to determine when a prisoner's religious concerns are a pretext and when they are genuine. "I suspect impending death focuses people's concerns on religion on a way they may not have had before," he said. “What about an inmate who seeks a religious conversion right before an execution?”

The Supreme Court has shown a growing concern in recent years about claims that states were denying the religious freedom of inmates facing the death penalty. The court blocked a scheduled execution in 2019 of another Texas inmate who said his religious freedom was violated because his Buddhist spiritual adviser wasn't allowed in.

In response, Texas banned all spiritual advisers from the execution chamber. Then, in 2020, the Supreme court stayed the execution of a Texas inmate challenging the no-advisers policy, so the state changed its policy again but retained the prohibition on praying aloud or touching.

Ramirez said that both he and his pastor believe that people either ascend to heaven or descend to damnation at the moment of death. Denying his pastor the traditional ministrations is a violation of religious freedom, he contended.

Texas allows spiritual advisors to pray with and counsel an inmate until the prisoner is taken into the lethal injection chamber. Preventing them from speaking or touching an inmate from that point on preserves the execution team's ability to detect signs of distress, the state said.

That protocol balances many factors, the state told the Supreme Court in its written filings, including "maintaining uniformity in executions to reduce the opportunity for errors, the safety and privacy of execution personnel, the rights of the inmate, and closure for the victim's family and the community."

Allowing an outsider to touch the inmate during the lethal injection "poses an unacceptable risk to the security, integrity, and solemnity of the execution," the state said.

Nine states — Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and Utah — urged the court to side with Texas. "The safety and security of state execution protocols should not be subject to federal court micromanagement," they said in a friend-of-court brief.

But several religious organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Texas prohibition burdens the religious freedom not only of inmates but also of their pastors in carrying out key actions of the ministry.

Ramirez was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing a man 29 times during a convenience store robbery following a drug binge. He fled to Mexico but was later arrested and brought back for trial.

The court will issue its ruling by late June.