The issue of how religious advisors can attend condemned prisoners might seem like a trivial one. However, it has now led to the third postponement of an execution in Texas.
The U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of John Ramirez this month nearly three hours after he was slated to die.
It marked the third time since 2019 that the nation’s highest court has stopped an execution in Texas over the state’s prison system’s stance on religious advisors attending condemned prisoners, the Texas Tribune reported. The court requested oral arguments be brought before the justices in October or November.
Ramirez was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of a convenience store clerk in Corpus Christi during a robbery. Ramirez stabbed the victim 29 times, according to court reports.
Ramirez has been on death row since his conviction in 2008. His last request to the state following the setting of his execution date in 2020 was for a pastor to hold onto him as he died.
Texas prison system rejected the prisoner’s request. Officials argued the request represented a security risk. Ramirez argued the decision violated his religious rights. However, lower courts sided with the state.
U.S. District Judge David Hittner ruled that the state has an interest in “maintaining an orderly, safe, and effective process” during executions.
The district judge said the TDCJ “will accommodate Ramirez’s religious beliefs by giving Ramirez access to his pastor on the day of execution and allowing him to stand nearby during the execution.”
Dana Moore, the pastor at Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, argued that was not enough, writing “I need to be in physical contact with John Ramirez during the most stressful and difficult time of his life in order to give him comfort.”
Ramirez’s legal counsel argued not allowing the pastor to touch him during the execution violated Ramirez’s First Amendment rights to practice his religion by denying his request to have his pastor touch him and vocalize prayers as he died.
The issue of spiritual advisors during executions has previously led to successful appeals in Texas.
In April, the Texas prison system halted a two-year ban on allowing spiritual advisers in the state’s death chamber. The ban came after the U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of another Texas inmate in 2019. The prisoner, Patrick Murphy, argued his religious freedoms were violated because his Buddhist spiritual adviser wasn’t allowed to accompany him to his death.
Murphy wanted a Buddhist priest with him during his execution. The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution arguing Texas violated Murphy’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Murphy became a Buddhist almost a decade earlier while incarcerated.
Before the ruling. Texas allowed state-employed clergy to accompany inmates into the chamber. Its prison staff included only Christian and Muslim clerics. The new policy allows an inmate’s approved spiritual adviser to be in the chamber. However, the two cannot have any contact and vocal prayers are not allowed during the execution.