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Why the Supreme Court’s conservatives may rule against a Christian inmate on death row

The justices are debating the role pastors should play in the execution chamber

SHARE Why the Supreme Court’s conservatives may rule against a Christian inmate on death row
SHARE Why the Supreme Court’s conservatives may rule against a Christian inmate on death row

The Supreme Court’s conservative wing bucked its religion friendly reputation Tuesday while considering what role pastors should play in the execution chamber.

Republican-appointed justices repeatedly questioned the wisdom of ruling in favor of John Henry Ramirez, a death row inmate in Texas who wants a spiritual adviser to touch him and pray audibly as he dies. They worried that such a decision would lead to a deluge of death penalty cases and force courts across the country to micromanage every aspect of executions.

“What’s going to happen when the next prisoner says, ‘I have a religious belief that (my pastor) should touch my knee. He should hold my hand’? ... We’re going to have to go through the whole human anatomy,” Justice Samuel Alito said.

The court’s more liberal justices, on the other hand, were clearly sympathetic to the Texas inmate’s claims. Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that religious freedom law has always required the kind of careful, individualized analysis that her conservative colleagues seemed uncomfortable with in this case.

“Whether we like it or not, (the law) requires the state to address each individual person’s need,” she said.

Ramirez, who was sentenced to death in 2004 for killing a convenience store clerk, argues that the First Amendment and another federal religious freedom law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act compel the state of Texas to adjust their execution procedures.

Currently, the state allows a spiritual adviser to be in the death chamber but not to touch the prisoner or audibly speak. Ramirez is fighting for the right to have his Southern Baptist pastor “lay hands” on him and say prayers as he dies.

Texas argues that such allowances would threaten the safety of the execution procedure. Medical experts and prison officials need to be able to clearly hear and see what’s happening while a lethal injection is taking place, they say.

In many ways, Tuesday’s oral arguments resembled the legal debates that surround most religious freedom cases. Justices reflected on how to balance Texas officials’ interest in accomplishing their policy goals with Ramirez’s interest in expressing his faith.

But in other ways, the conversation was quite different because of the unique nature of death penalty litigation. Several justices raised concerns about religious sincerity and questioned whether death row inmates should be taken at their word.

“Normally under (religious freedom law) we would rarely discuss the sincerity of beliefs. Is that analysis different under the (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) considering opportunities for gaming the system?” asked Justice Clarence Thomas at one point.

Other justices emphasized the high stakes of capital cases, noting that the court needs to reflect on how painful it is for victims’ loved ones when executions are delayed.

“If we’re going to rule for you, I think we need some clear lines so ... we’re not putting future victims’ families in the same position of time after time having these delays,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh said.

The court also needs to consider historical precedent and recall that dozens of executions have been carried out successfully with pastors touching the prisoner and offering prayers, according to the more liberal justices.

Ramirez’s claims deserve to be taken as seriously as claims made by prison officials, Justice Elena Kagan said.

There needs to be “an appropriate level of deference given to prison officials, but ... also an appropriate level of respect given to the inmate with religious convictions, as commanded by Congress,” she said.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is expected before the end of June.