Supreme Court weighs religious accommodations during executions

The Supreme Court on Tuesday considered the kinds of spiritual accommodations prisons are required to provide death row inmates during execution, with some justices appearing perplexed over how to define the scope of inmates’ rights.

The dispute pitted the religious rights of death row inmates in their final living moments against the interest of prison officials in carrying out executions efficiently and with minimal risk of interference. 

The case before the court Tuesday concerned John Ramirez, who was sentenced to death for a brutal a 2004 murder, and who claims Texas is poised to execute him in a manner that would violate his religious rights.

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Ramirez brought a religious liberty challenge after Texas refused to permit his spiritual adviser, Dana Moore, to lay hands on him and audibly pray while he is executed, with Ramirez appealing to the Supreme Court after losing in lower courts.

Under a 2000 statute known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, prison officials are barred from seriously burdening an inmate’s religious rights unless they can meet a strict legal standard.

Ramirez contends that Texas failed to clear this high legal bar both because it lacks an adequate legal justification for prohibiting the laying of hands and audible prayer, and that its blanket ban is far too sweeping.

Judd Stone, Texas’s solicitor general, told the justices that permitting Ramirez’s pastor to lay hands on him and pray aloud inside the execution chamber would create an unacceptable risk given the potential harm at stake.

“A tiny amount of risk can lead to a situation that would create intolerable pain for an inmate or intolerable amount of reliving of suffering for the victim’s family,” he said.

Texas warned that allowing the laying of hands could lead to inadvertent interference with the IV lines used in lethal injection and that audible prayer could interfere with officials’ ability to monitor the procedure. The state also said the shifting details of Ramirez’s request suggests his true aim is to delay his execution rather than secure spiritual guidance at the time of his death.

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Several justices expressed concerns that ruling in Ramirez’s favor would incentivize other death row inmates to challenge their executions on increasingly expansive religious grounds.

“What you have said so far suggests to me that we can look forward to an unending stream of variations,” Justice Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoWill the justices end race-based affirmative action?  Supreme Court just added affirmative action to its list of conservative unfinished business It's up to America's state courts to rescue democracy MORE said to Ramirez’s lawyer, Seth Kretzer. “You have told us you would be satisfied if Pastor Moore touches Mr. Ramirez’s foot."

“But what's going to happen when the next prisoner says that I have a religious belief that he should touch my knee. He should hold my hand. He should put his hand over my heart. He should be able to put his hand on my head,” Alito continued. “We're going to have to go through a whole human anatomy with a series of cases?”

A decision in the case, Ramirez v. Collier, is expected by late June.