A prisoner scheduled to be executed in Texas requested that he be allowed to have his pastor present to provide “spiritual comfort and guidance in his final moments.” The state of Texas denied the request because it bars chaplains of any religion to enter an execution chamber.
After the denial by Texas, the prisoner sought legal relief for his request only to be denied by a federal district court and a court of appeals. The United States Supreme Court subsequently took up the case.
The Court, in an 8-1 majority, reversed the lower court decisions. Citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), it said the restrictions imposed by Texas were not based on “a compelling governmental interest.”
This article will explore the Court’s analysis, and the general implications of the decision for chaplains and prison ministries.
Pablo Castro worked the night shift at the Times Market convenience store in Corpus Christi, Texas. On July 19, 2004, Castro was outside closing up when John Ramirez and an accomplice approached him with a knife. Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times, searched his pockets, and made off with $1.25. Castro died on the pavement, leaving behind 9 children and 14 grandchildren.
Ramirez fled to Mexico, where he evaded authorities for more than three years. In 2008, he was finally apprehended near the Mexican border. The state of Texas charged Ramirez with murdering Castro in the course of committing or attempting to commit robbery—a capital offense. Ramirez admitted to killing Castro but denied the robbery that made the murder a capital crime. A jury disagreed, found Ramirez guilty, and sentenced him to death.
Texas scheduled Ramirez’s execution for September 9, 2020. Ramirez asked to have his pastor accompany him into the execution chamber. Prison officials denied the request. They did so because, at the time, Texas’s execution protocol barred all spiritual advisors from entering the chamber.
A prior version of the protocol had allowed access for prison chaplains, but at the time, Texas employed only Christian and Muslim chaplains. In 2019, when a Buddhist inmate sought to have his spiritual advisor join him in the execution chamber, Texas declined to grant the accommodation. In response, Texas also amended its execution protocol to bar all chaplains from entering the execution chamber so as not to discriminate among religions.
Turning to RLUIPA
Ramirez filed a lawsuit in federal court. He did not challenge his conviction or death sentence. Instead, he asked that his longtime pastor be allowed to pray with him and lay hands on him while he was being executed. He claimed that RLUIPA, a federal law, requires this accommodation.
Ramirez sought a preliminary injunction ordering Texas to permit his religious exercise if the state went forward with his execution. A federal district court and court of appeals declined to grant such relief. The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on appeal.
Ramirez’s complaint said that he was a Christian and had received religious guidance from Pastor Dana Moore since 2016. Ramirez is a member of Moore’s church in Corpus Christi.
Ramirez explained that he wanted his pastor “to be present at the time of his execution to pray with him and provide spiritual comfort and guidance in his final moments,” and that the pastor be permitted to “lay hands” on him and audibly “pray over” him while the execution was taking place. Ramirez’s grievance explains that “it is part of my faith to have my spiritual advisor lay hands on me anytime I am sick or dying.”
Texas denied this request on the ground that spiritual advisors are “not allowed to touch an inmate while inside the execution chamber.”
In reviewing the case, the Supreme Court described RLUIPA in this way:
No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution—including state prisoners . . . unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
The Court concluded that any restriction on the ability of Ramirez’s pastor to enter the execution chamber, lay hands on him, and audibly pray for him during the execution procedure would impose a substantial burden on his religious exercise.
The Court further concluded that restrictions imposed by Texas on the presence of clergy during an execution were not based on a compelling governmental interest.
Rejecting Texas’s arguments
Texas argued it had two compelling governmental interests that justified its policy.
First, absolute silence was necessary in the execution chamber so they can monitor the inmate’s condition through a microphone suspended overhead. Prison officials claimed that audible prayer might impede their ability to hear subtle signs of trouble or might prove distracting during an emergency.
The Court agreed that “audible prayer could present a . . . serious risk of interference during the delicate process of lethal injection. . . . But [prison officials] fail to show that a categorical ban on all audible prayer is the least restrictive means of furthering their compelling interests,” as required by RLUIPA.
Second, Texas argued about concerns regarding possible disruptions. Prison officials claimed that if they allow spiritual advisors to pray aloud during executions, the opportunity “could be exploited to make a statement to the witnesses or officials, rather than the inmate. . . . [And] such statements might cause further trauma to the victim’s family or otherwise interfere with the execution.”
The Court agreed that the government has a compelling interest in preventing disruptions of any sort and maintaining solemnity and decorum in the execution chamber. But “there is no indication in the record that Pastor Moore would cause the sorts of disruptions that [prison officials] fear.”
Historical practices with executions
With its decision, the Court briefly summarized the history of audible prayer at the time of execution to affirm the central importance of this practice in the Christian tradition:
As for audible prayer, there is a rich history of clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution, dating back well before the founding of our Nation. For example, at Newgate Prison—one of London’s most notorious jails—an Anglican priest would stand and pray with the condemned in their final moments. By the early 1700s, that practice had evolved to permit prisoners to be “attended by a minister, or even a priest, of their own communion. Prayer at the time of execution was also commonplace in the American Colonies. . . . And during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington ordered that “prisoners under sentence of death” “be attended with such Chaplains as they choose”—including at the time of their execution. These chaplains often spoke and prayed with the condemned during their final moments. . . . (“Upon the arrival of the criminals at the place of execution, the attending chaplain . . . prayed and recommended them severally to God.”)
A tradition of such prayer continued throughout our Nation’s history. When, for example, the Federal Government executed four members of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the prisoners were accompanied by clergy of various denominations. These “spiritual advisers” ministered to the condemned, and three spoke public prayers shortly before the prisoners were hanged. And in the aftermath of World War II, the United States Army even permitted Nazi war criminals facing execution to be accompanied by a chaplain, who “spoke” prayers on the gallows in the moments before death.
The practice continues today. In 2020 and 2021, the Federal Bureau of Prisons allowed religious advisors to speak or pray audibly with inmates during at least six federal executions. What’s more, Texas itself 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. (citations omitted)
What this means for churches
The ministries of chaplains carry great historical significance in the country and constitute significant and vibrant efforts still today in many parts of the country. This decision is especially relevant to chaplains carrying on that work now and going forward. Likewise, it is relevant to any church with a minister who serves as a prison chaplain, as well as churches with active prison ministries in which ministers visit prisoners, among other services.
Ramirez v. Collier, 142 S. Ct. 1264 (2021)