Executions in Texas delayed by claims of religious rights

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HOUSTON – Executions in nation’s busiest death-penalty state delayed amid legal questions over Texas’ refusal to allow spiritual counselors to touch inmates and pray aloud as convicts are put to death.

It’s unclear when Texas will be able to proceed with another execution after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear death row inmate John Henry Ramirez’s religious freedom claims. The court blocked his execution last month, about three hours after it could have taken place. Several other detainees have since made similar claims and the courts have suspended some of their executions.

“It would be unusual for someone with the same problem not to get a stay while the Supreme Court decides this issue. It would be very unusual, ”said Michael Benza, professor of law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

A Supreme Court ruling could be months away. He is expected to hear oral argument on November 1.

Ramirez says the state is violating his religious freedom by not letting his spiritual advisor lay hands on him and pray aloud while he is executed. Texas prison officials say direct contact poses a safety risk and prayers said aloud could be disruptive.

The most recent delay concerned Stephen Barbee. He was due to be executed on Tuesday, but US District Judge Kenneth Hoyt in Houston ruled Thursday that Barbee initially showed “Texas’ limitations in the execution chamber significantly hamper the exercise of his religion.”

“I am very grateful for the stay of execution in Mr. Barbee’s case as it will give the court time to assess these important religious rights issues,” said Richard Ellis, Barbee’s lawyer, in a statement. email Friday.

The courts had already granted deadlines for two other detainees – Ruben Gutierrez, scheduled for October 27, and Fabian Hernandez, scheduled for November 3 – at the request of prosecutors. Kosoul Chanthakoummane, set to die on November 10, and Ramiro Gonzales, scheduled for execution on November 17, are also raising similar claims for religious freedom, which could delay their lethal injections.

Executions in Texas have been sporadic over the past two years, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with just three lethal injections given last year and three so far this year. By comparison, Texas carried out 13 executions in 2018 and nine in 2019.

Texas and Missouri were the only states to execute inmates during the pandemic, with two in Missouri. The federal government under the Trump administration executed 13 inmates during the same period. Both Oklahoma and Alabama are scheduled for executions later this year.

The Supreme Court has dealt with the presence of spiritual advisers in the death chamber in recent years, but has not made a final decision. The detainees cite the First Amendment to the Constitution as well as a 2000 federal law that protects a prisoner’s religious rights.

The High Court review comes after the Texas prison system in April overturned a two-year ban on spiritual counselors in the death chamber, but limited what they can do. Texas instituted the ban after the Supreme Court in 2019 arrested the execution of Patrick Murphy, who argued his religious freedom was being violated because his Buddhist spiritual advisor was not allowed to accompany him. Murphy remains on death row.

The decision in the Murphy case came after the court was criticized for refusing to stop the execution of Alabama inmate Domineque Ray, following his request to have his Islamic spiritual advisor in the bedroom of the death.

In a statement filed Monday in federal court in the Barbee case, Bobby Lumpkin, director of the Division of Corrections in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, suggested that a spiritual advisor could attempt to release an inmate or shoot intravenous lines that administer the lethal injection. Lumpkin also said audible prayers could prevent prison officials from knowing if anything went wrong.

“Because death row is home to many of the most violent, unpredictable and dangerous inmates (in the prison system), who have nothing to lose by trying to escape or by taking and assaulting a hostage, the rule prohibiting physical contact increases the security of the institution and protects visitors and staff, ”Lumpkin said.

Alabama last month agreed, as part of a court settlement, to let death row inmate’s pastor Willie Smith hold his hand and pray with him during his execution on October 21.

J. Patrick Hornbeck II, professor of theology at Fordham University in New York, said the Supreme Court will seek to balance the state’s legitimate interest in security with the ability of prisoners to practice their religion.

“It will be a real test of consistency that judges bring to this kind of question to see how they deal with these kinds of religious freedom claims when they are raised by prisoners who have been sentenced to death for heinous crimes but who seek solace in the last moments of their lives, ”Hornbeck said.

Michael Mushlin, a law professor at Pace University in New York City, said it is likely that the Supreme Court will make a ruling on two specific questions: whether spiritual counselors can pray aloud and whether they can touch an inmate. But it’s unclear whether the court will make a broader decision that spells out everything a spiritual advisor can do in an enforcement chamber, he said.

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