The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 8-1 in favor of a death row inmate seeking to hear vocal prayers and feel his pastor’s touch as he dies. The decision makes it clear that religious freedom protections for prisoners extend to the execution chamber.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts confirms that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, like other justice departments, has a clear interest in safely carrying out execution procedures. But safety concerns do not justify barring inmates from hearing a prayer or having a spiritual adviser next to them as they die, Roberts said.

“Prison officials could impose reasonable restrictions on audible prayer in the execution chamber — such as limiting the volume of any prayer so that medical officials can monitor an inmate’s condition, requiring silence during critical points in the execution process, ... allowing a spiritual advisor to speak only with the inmate and subjecting advisors to immediate removal for failure to comply with any rule,” he wrote.

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Religious freedom on death row

The ruling is based on a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which outlines how to balance government interests with individual religious freedom claims.

During oral arguments in November, some of the justices and the attorney for Texas worried about the time it takes to complete this balancing test. Regularly delaying executions can cause harm to community members, they said.

In Thursday’s ruling, Roberts acknowledged these concerns but said it’s up to state officials to find a way to streamline the process. The government cannot trample people’s religious freedom rights simply to save itself time, he wrote.

“Timely resolution of (religious freedom) claims could be facilitated if states were to adopt policies anticipating and addressing issues likely to arise. Doing so would assist both prison officials responsible for carrying out executions and prisoners preparing to confront the end of life according to their religious beliefs,” the majority opinion said.

The decision will help resolve confusion about the religious freedom rights of death row inmates — confusion that stems from the Supreme Court’s own actions.

In 2019, the justices postponed the execution of a Buddhist inmate seeking access to a Buddhist chaplain just a month after allowing an execution of a Muslim inmate with nearly identical concerns. The conflicting rulings raised questions about how far state prison systems must go to accommodate the religious beliefs of men and women behind bars.

Those past decisions loomed large in the current case, Ramirez v. Collier. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice had adjusted its rules regarding spiritual advisers multiple times in recent years in response to the conflicting guidance.

In his plea to the Supreme Court for help, the inmate, John Henry Ramirez, who was found guilty in 2004 of murdering a convenience store clerk, argued that Texas’ current policy, which allows for a spiritual adviser to be present in the execution chamber but not to speak to or touch the inmate, still violated religious freedom law. Eight of the nine justices have now agreed with him and instructed the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to revise its policies yet again.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter in the case.