The Supreme Court has suspended execution in Texas due to faith issues. And after?

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This article was first published in the State of the Faith Bulletin. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox every Monday evening.

Note: This special edition of the State of Faith newsletter focuses on Ramirez vs. 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 for the Supreme Court to tell him if he can feel his pastor’s touch when this happens.

On Tuesday, judges will hear her case and examine the relationship between religious freedom and death row. Texas claims it has done enough for Ramirez by granting his pastor access to the execution chamber, but Ramirez and his supporters say the law demands more.

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case follows a confusing mix of related decisions. First, in February 2019, judges ruled that a Muslim man could be put to death in Alabama despite the state’s refusal to allow his imam to enter the room. (Officials offered to provide a Christian chaplain instead.) Then, just a month later, the court postponed the execution of a Buddhist man in Texas after filing a nearly identical lawsuit.

As a result of this second decision, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice banned spiritual counselors of any denomination from being in the execution chamber. But after further interference from the Supreme Court, the state adjusted its policies again earlier this year.

Under current rules, the pastor of Ramirez, who is a Southern Baptist, may be in the room to witness the execution. However, he cannot touch Ramirez or vocally pray for him as he dies. The State contends that such behavior would render the procedure dangerous.

Spiritual counselors “cannot speak or touch the inmate once he is in the room to preserve the drug team’s ability to observe signs of distress,” says one of Texas Supreme Court briefs .

Just before his scheduled execution on September 8, Ramirez filed a lawsuit against the policy, arguing that the state must allow his pastor to “lay his hands” on him and pray with him since these practices are part of the Baptist tradition. His challenge went to the Supreme Court, where judges agreed to delay Ramirez’s execution and rule on his case.

The court’s final decision, which is expected by the end of June, will clarify the religious freedom rights of those on death row and how to balance those rights with the government’s safety and security objectives.

Prior to oral argument this week, I spoke with Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who looked after six death row inmates on the day of their execution. She explained 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 do you think of your experiences ministering to detainees and witnessing executions?

Sister Hélène Préjean: The cold protocol. Everything is carefully timed and designed to put a distance between the prison staff and the person killed. For us to kill people, this distancing has to happen.

I don’t think having religious advisers in the execution chamber is a security threat. I think praying with someone is a threat to this protocol. Prison officials do not want this emotion to creep in.

KD: You vomited 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 there for the first time in the dark, throwing up, I thought, “I will never go back.” But this very good lawyer that I had worked with came to visit me and said, “We have two other clients in Louisiana. They need someone. They need the love and care that you are going to show them.

Looking him in the eye and knowing he was going back into the fire, I knew I couldn’t just save myself. I thought I could really 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?

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

Why does someone, when he dies, look like someone who holds his hand and is close to them? It is that presence. You want to be close to someone who sees your worth and who truly cares about you.

KD: John Henry Ramirez admitted he was guilty of a terrible crime. Some of my readers probably think he does not deserve to have his request for prayer and physical contact granted. What would you tell them?

HP: It is an easy mistake to identify a person with an action. This 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 cannot be identified with an act.


Fresh from the press


End 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 enacted in 2000, prevents the government from interfering with the religious activities of detainees, except in situations where there is no other less restrictive way for officials to achieve a important goal. He has 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 was granted the right to have a beard.

Texas officials have argued that the state’s policy on spiritual advisers does not violate RLUIPA because it does not compel Ramirez to participate in a religious activity that he opposes. A group of religious scholars have filed a brief with the Supreme Court rejecting this claim. “Refusal to allow the minister to pray or touch the prisoner does not oblige the inmate to behave, but it obliges the minister to abandon his religious behavior, and thus prevents the prisoner’s religious exercise. The prison thus affects the religious exercise of the detainee by prohibiting the religious exercise of the minister ”, they write.


What I’m reading …

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

A wide range of organizations have filed Supreme Court briefs in favor of Ramirez, including groups that typically 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 referred to a few of these amicus briefs in a Nov. 3 article on the case. This article focused on the experiences of people who, like Sister Prejean, served as spiritual counselors to those on death row. “Having a friendly face makes a difference to the person being executed. … I’m glad I did even though it was traumatic to watch a human being killed, ”Yusuf Nur, a Muslim business professor in Indiana, told the AP.


Tips

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


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