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States Must Allow Prayer, Even Touch During Executions, Supreme Court Says

March 25, 2022 by Dan McCue
States Must Allow Prayer, Even Touch During Executions, Supreme Court Says
The U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — States must accommodate the wishes of death row inmates who ask to have a priest or other representative of their faith pray aloud and even comfort them with a touch during their executions, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The case before the court was brought by John Henry Ramirez, who was sentenced to die for the 2004 murder and robbery of a Corpus Christi, Texas, convenience store worker. 

Ramirez stabbed the worker, Pablo Castro, 29 times and stole just $1.25. As his execution approached, Ramirez challenged state rules that would have forced his pastor to remain silent and separate from him as he is put to death.

Writing for the majority in the 8-to-1 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote “it is possible to accommodate Ramirez’s sincere religious beliefs without delaying or impeding his execution.” 

Roberts noted that Texas “appears to have long allowed prison chaplains to pray with inmates in the execution chamber, deciding to prohibit such prayer only in the last several years.” 

He also rejected concerns that allowing a pastor to touch an inmate could interfere with the intravenous lines that carry the drugs used to carry out the execution. 

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, writing before his recent hospitalization for the flu that Ramirez repeatedly attempted to delay his execution and his current lawsuit “is but the latest iteration in an 18-year pattern of evasion.”

Roberts’ opinion also urged states to think about the religious needs of inmates in the context of executions and proactively adopt policies. 

“If states adopt clear rules in advance, it should be the rare case that requires last-minute resort to the federal courts,” he wrote. 

In an email to The Well News, Robert Hurst, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said, “We respect the court’s decision and will be making appropriate modifications to our practices to align with today’s ruling.”

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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