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Religious freedom on death row

In Ramirez v. Collier, the Supreme Court is considering a man’s request to have his pastor pray for and lay hands on him in the execution chamber

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

Note: This special edition of the State of Faith newsletter focuses on Ramirez v. Collier. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case on Tuesday.

John Henry Ramirez knows that, one day, the state of Texas will put him to death. But he’s waiting on the Supreme Court to tell him whether he can feel his pastor’s touch when it happens.

On Tuesday, the justices will hear his case and consider the relationship between religious freedom and death row. Texas argues that it’s done enough for Ramirez by granting his pastor access to the execution chamber, but Ramirez and his supporters say the law requires more.

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case comes on the heels of a confusing mix of related rulings. First, in Feb. 2019, the justices said a Muslim man could be put to death in Alabama despite the state’s refusal to allow his imam into the room. (Officials offered to provide a Christian chaplain instead.) Then, just a month later, the court postponed a Buddhist man’s execution in Texas after he filed a nearly identical complaint.

In the wake of that second decision, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice barred spiritual advisers of any faith from being in the execution chamber. But after additional Supreme Court interference, the state adjusted its policies yet again earlier this year.

Under the current rules, Ramirez’s pastor, who is a Southern Baptist, can be in the room to witness the execution. However, he cannot touch Ramirez or vocally pray for him as he dies. The state argues that such behavior would make the procedure unsafe.

Spiritual advisers “may not speak to or touch the inmate once he is in the chamber to preserve the drug team’s ability to observe signs of distress,” explains one of Texas’ briefs to the Supreme Court.

Just before he was scheduled to be executed on Sept. 8, Ramirez filed a lawsuit over this policy, arguing that the state must allow his pastor to “lay hands” on him and pray with him since these practices are part of the Baptist tradition. His challenge made it to the Supreme Court, where the justices agreed to delay Ramirez’s execution and weigh in on his case.

The court’s eventual ruling, which is expected by the end of June, will clarify the religious freedom rights of death row inmates and how to balance these rights with the government’s safety and security goals.

Ahead of oral arguments this week, I spoke with Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who has ministered to six death row inmates on their execution day. She described why the spiritual support she and others provide is meaningful and what, in her mind, is at stake in Ramirez’s case.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kelsey Dallas: What stands out to you from your experiences ministering to inmates and witnessing executions?

Sister Helen Prejean: The cold protocol. Everything is carefully timed and designed to put a distance between the prison staff and the person being killed. In order for us to kill people, that distancing has to happen.

I don’t think having religious advisers in the execution chamber is a threat to security. I think praying with somebody is a threat to that protocol. Prison officials don’t want that emotion creeping in.

KD: You threw up after the first time you saw an execution. If it makes you sick, why have you continued this ministry all these years?

HP: When I was first out there in the dark, throwing up, I thought, “I’m never going back there.” But this really great lawyer I’d worked with came to visit me and said, ‘We have two more clients in Louisiana. They need somebody. They need the love and care that you’re going to show them.’

Looking at him in the eyes and knowing that he was going back into the fire, I knew I couldn’t just save myself. I thought I could really be of help. So I said yes.

KD: How do you offer comfort to these men in their final moments? What message are you trying to leave them with?

HP: I offer pure presence. I tell them to look at my face, the face of somebody that cares about you. Look up at the face of somebody who loves you. The face of somebody who seriously believes what is being done to you is morally wrong. I tell them they have value.

Why does anybody when they’re dying like somebody holding their hand and being close to them? It’s that presence. You want to be close to someone who sees your value and really cares.

KD: John Henry Ramirez has acknowledged that he’s guilty of a terrible crime. Some of my readers likely believe he doesn’t deserve to have his request for prayer and physical touch granted. What would you say to them?

HP: It’s an easy mistake to identify a person with an action. That crime was the worst act of his life. He did a terrible thing. But that’s not him.

People always have transcendence in them. They can’t be identified with an act.


Fresh off the press


Term of the week: RLUIPA

In addition to the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, Ramirez’s lawsuit cites a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, also known as RLUIPA.

Among other things, this policy, which was signed into law in 2000, prevents the government from interfering with prisoners’ religious activities except in situations where there is no other, less restrictive way for officials to achieve an important goal. It’s been cited in a number of other high-profile legal battles, including a Supreme Court case called Holt v. Hobbs, in which a Muslim prisoner won the right to have a beard.

Texas officials have argued that the state’s policy on spiritual advisers does not violate RLUIPA because they’re not forcing Ramirez to participate in a religious activity he objects to. A group of religion scholars filed a brief with the Supreme Court pushing back against this claim. “Refusing to allow the minister to pray or touch the prisoner does not compel conduct from the inmate, but it does coerce the minister to abandon his religious behavior, and thereby prevents the prisoner’s religious exercise. The prison thus burdens the religious exercise of the prisoner by prohibiting the religious exercise of the minister,” they wrote.


What I’m reading ...

Time magazine published a beautiful overview of the Ramirez case last week, which included insights from the man’s pastor, the Rev. Dana Moore. Moore described why he feels called to serve death row inmates and why it’s crucial that he be allowed to pray with and touch Ramirez during the execution. “The job of a minister is not to stand still and be quiet. Prayer is very important. And the power of touch is real,” he said.

A wide range of organizations have filed Supreme Court briefs in support of Ramirez, including groups that usually fight against each other in religious freedom cases. You can access these documents on the court’s website; I particularly recommend the briefs from the ACLU and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

The Associated Press referenced a few of these amicus briefs in a Nov. 3 story on the case. That article focused on the experiences of people who, like Sister Prejean, have served as spiritual advisers to death row inmates. “To have a friendly face makes a difference to the person being executed. ... I’m glad I did it even though it was traumatic to witness a human being being killed,” said Yusuf Nur, a Muslim professor of business in Indiana, to the AP.


Odds and ends

For even more information on the Ramirez case and the broader topic of religious liberty on death row, check out the Oct. 28 episode of the “Respecting Religion” podcast, which is a project of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.