On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled in Ramirez v. Collier, which involved a death row inmate trying to get his predecessor to lay hands on him and audibly pray during his execution. Although the decision involves some procedural complexities, eight judges sided with John Ramirez, the inmate. Only Judge Clarence Thomas disagreed.
It was, in short, a statement that gave precedence to religious freedom.
But, perhaps surprisingly, the Ramirez The decision should be reassuring to liberals, myself included, who have viewed the Court’s recent religious decisions with concern. Particularly after Judge Amy Comey Barrett’s confirmation in the fall of 2020 gave Republicans a super-majority vote in the Supreme Court, the Court has been extremely concerned about conservative Christian litigants — even ruling in favor of litigants seeking legal exemptions that could potentially take their lives. of other citizens.
But the Court has not always shown the same respect for religion claims by people who do not constitute a major Republican Party constituency.
In Trump v. Hawaii (2018), the Court upheld former President Donald Trump’s policy of banning people from several majority Muslim countries from entering the United States — and it did so despite Trump repeatedly boasting about his plans to create a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until the representatives of our country can find out what is going on.”
Than in Dunn v. Ray (2019), the Court’s Republican appointees ruled against a Muslim prisoner in Alabama who wanted his imam to be present at his execution. Significantly, Alabama allowed Christian prisoners to have a spiritual adviser present, but Muslims did not. But the Constitution does not permit such discrimination between religions. As Judge Elena Kagan wrote in her: Dunn dissent, “the clearest injunction of the establishment clause … is that one religious denomination cannot officially be preferred over another.”
Two years later, the Court ruled seemed to realize it had gone too far, and ruled that a Christian prisoner could have his pastor with him. John Ramirez, the Texas death row inmate in the case decided Thursday, sought to test the magnitude of that decline. His case is clear because he has asked not only to allow his pastor to be present, but also to have that pastor audibly pray and lay hands on during his execution.
When pleading in Ramirez, most of the Court’s conservative bloc seemed likely to say their new permissiveness was quite limited. Although Ramirez is a Christian, several judges suggested during oral arguments that the Court should not consider his claim, as doing so could lead to too much work for the judges themselves.
Judge Samuel Alito, for example, lamented that “we can look forward to an endless stream of variations” of death row inmates seeking various religious accommodations if the Court ruled in Ramirez’s favor.
In the end, however, Alito — along with all the justices other than Thomas — concurred with an opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts, who ruled in Ramirez’s favor. Technically, the advisory allows Texas to continue to litigate this matter in a lower court, but Texas would also have to delay Ramirez’s execution to do so. And that of Roberts Ramirez advisory announces a legal rule that would make it difficult for Texas to prevail if it decides to continue to litigate in this case.
In any case, this view is a sign that the Court will not always limit the blessings of religious freedom to politically privileged ends.
Convicted prisoners have received spiritual comfort during their executions for hundreds of years
Such as Roberts’ opinion notes that until a few years ago, the state of Texas, which plans to execute Ramirez, allowed chaplains to pray with convicted inmates in the execution chamber. This is also the practice in federal executions. As Roberts writes, “in 2020 and 2021, the Federal Bureau of Prisons allowed religious counselors to speak or pray audibly with inmates during at least six federal executions.”
This practice of providing spiritual comfort to convicted inmates goes back hundreds of years. “By the early 1800s,” Roberts writes, in “one of London’s most notorious prisons” convicted inmates were allowed “to be attended by a clergyman, or even a priest, from their own community.” Similarly, during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington ordered that convicted prisoners “be attended with such chaplains, at their discretion.”
This decency was even extended to enemies and traitors. When “the federal government executed four members of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the inmates were joined by clergy of different denominations,” Roberts notes. After the Allies’ victory in World War II, “the US military even allowed Nazi war criminals who were being executed to be accompanied by a chaplain, who ‘proclaimed’ prayers on the gallows just before death.”
In other words, Texas’s relatively recent practice of depriving convicted inmates of such comfort is inconsistent with age-old tradition. As the Court ruled in Ramirezit also does not conform to a federal statute known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which states that “no government may impose a substantial burden on the religious practice of any person residing in or confined to an institution,” except in rare instances where the government has a particularly compelling reason to do so, and the “least restrictive means” to achieve that goal.
To justify its new policy, Texas argued primarily that allowing Ramirez the spiritual solace he seeks would create unnecessary security risks or hinder the execution. For example, allowing the pastor to pray aloud, Texas claimed it could hinder “prison officials’ ability to hear subtle signals of trouble” during the execution. If the pastor can get hands on the inmate, they can “tamp with the inmate’s restrictions or pull out an IV line.”
But these claims that spiritual counselors pose a security risk are undermined by the fact that clergy have been allowed to comfort dying prisoners without incident for hundreds of years. They are also undermined by the fact that Texas could use less restrictive means to allay its concerns. For example, if Texas fears Ramirez’s pastor will tamper with the IV line, it may require the pastor to, in Roberts’ words, “stand far from the site of an IV line.”
The long, hard road to Ramirez
The Court’s ruling in RayThe case involving the Muslim prisoner was widely condemned by liberals and conservatives alike. Writing in the conservative National Review, David French labeled the Court’s decision to deny spiritual comfort to this prisoner as a “serious violation of the First Amendment†
indeed, the Ray advice led to such a backlash that the Court seemed to respond to this backlash in Bucklew v. Precythe (2019), a 5-4 death penalty decision handed down months later Ray† The Ray opinion, judge Neil Gorsuch claimed in belt bucklewas pronounced because “the prisoner waited to make an available claim until just 10 days before his scheduled execution”, not because the court harbored any specific enmity against Muslims.
But this justification for the result in Ray never made sense. As Judge Kagan noted in her: Ray The detainee in that case filed his lawsuit just five days after the prison warden formally rejected his request to have an imam present at the execution. And the guard did so despite a state law stipulating that “the prisoner’s spiritual advisor”may be present at an execution.’” So the prisoner in Ray couldn’t possibly have known that he needed to file a lawsuit sooner.
By 2021, a majority of the Court seemed to realize that: Ray was untenable. In Dunn v. Smith (2021) the court allowed a Christian prisoner to have a preacher present at his execution. And even the dissident judges seemed to admit that they had been beaten. In his dissenting opinion in SmithJustice Kavanaugh wrote that “it seems clear that states wishing to avoid months or years of delay in lawsuits over this RLUIPA issue must devise a way to admit spiritual advisers into the execution chamber, as other states and the federal government have done. †
It was therefore surprising that during the plea in Ramirezso many of the judges seemed so dismissive of Ramirez’s legal claims — and so concerned about whether, if the Court ruled in Ramirez’s favor, it would create more work for the judges by inspiring other inmates to take similar lawsuits. to strain.
But in the end, eight judges chose the rule of law over their own personal convenience. That is the bare minimum that anyone can expect from a court. But in view of the Court’s previous rulings in Hawaii and Rayit’s also a much more reassuring outcome than the alternative.