Supreme Court suddenly calls religious rights into question in Texas death penalty case


Jean Ramirez will die soon. Texas will put him to death for the Murder in 2004 of convenience store clerk Pablo Castro, aged 46. The Supreme Court of the United States will tell us exactly what can happen in the execution chamber when he dies.

The Supreme Court has never decided what, if anything, a spiritual advisor can do inside the death chamber.

Ramirez wants his spiritual advisor, a Baptist pastor he met in prison, so that he could audibly touch and pray while he was put to death by lethal injection. Texas says the pastor can be in the death chamber but cannot lay hands on Ramirez or pray aloud.

If this conservative Supreme Court is also protection of religious rights as he appears to be, then he will protect the rights of Ramirez, a death row inmate, just as he protected the rights of employers who wish to refuse contraception to their employees, religious schools that wish to discriminate against their employees, religious adoption agencies who don’t want to work with same-sex couples and people who oppose Covid-19 restrictions on religious grounds.

The Supreme Court has never decided what, if anything, a spiritual advisor can do once inside the death chamber. Previous cases have only dealt with whether those on death row have the right to have their spiritual advisers present. And previous cases have answered this question inconsistently. In 2019, the Supreme Court authorized Alabama to execute Muslim without his imam present in the death chamber but a month later prevented Texas from executing a Buddhist man without the presence of his Buddhist priest. Part of the difference in treatment, depending on some members of the courtis that the Muslim man waited too long to request the presence of his imam. This year the court bans Alabama from executing death row inmate without the presence of his pastor.

On Tuesday, the court heard arguments over whether Ramirez had a constitutional or statutory right to have his pastor not only present, but also to physically touch him and pray aloud. The First amendment free exercise clause is designed to protect an individual’s religious freedom and prevents the government from restricting an individual’s free exercise of religion, with many caveats and exceptions. And the Law on Land Use for Religious Purposes and Institutionalized Persons specifically protects the religious rights of detainees.

If Ramirez can show that the decision of Texas to prohibit its pastor from touching him and praying aloud weighs considerably on the exercise of his religion under the First amendment free exercise clause rights or under the Law on Land Use for Religious Purposes and Institutionalized Persons, then Texas must demonstrate that it has a compelling state interest in this substantial burden and that there is essentially no other way to achieve that interest.

Texas responds to Ramirez request violates its security procedures and that Ramirez did not follow proper procedures and should have asked his pastor to be present before filing his complaint. And as to the substance of Ramirez’s claims, Texas maintains that it does not weigh substantially on his religious rights. Instead, he has simply decided not to comply with all of his requests, which he claims to be a necessary part of his religion.

Ramirez’s argument leads to a conflict of considerations that the court tends to rely on.

Ramirez’s argument provides a conflict of considerations the court tends to get over it. It is a court that has been very protective of religious rights. (See recent court rulings in cases involving religious objections to Covid-related restrictions.) It is also a court that appears deferential to the the government’s need to maintain the security of its prisons.

Oral arguments highlighted a sharp fault line in the Supreme Court. The conservative wing of the court feared that granting Ramirez’s request could open the valves to other death row inmates asking for other religious accommodations and wondering if Ramirez’s religious beliefs were sincerely. Chief Justice John Roberts, for example, asked what would happen if Ramirez’s religious beliefs dictated that three people be in the execution chamber with him. The liberal wing of the court was much less worried about opening the floodgates of the litigation by ruling in favor of Ramirez. Judge Sonia Sotomayor, perhaps the most liberal member of the court, argued that under current federal law, Ramirez has the legal right to operate the prison in good faith to accommodate his religious beliefs. .

There is something shocking about hearing conservative judges wringing their hands over whether and how to accommodate the religious beliefs of a death row inmate when they were much more concerned with protecting an individual’s religious beliefs. in situations that could cause much more harm to others. Let’s do still remember employers who may choose not to provide contraception to their employees, schools that may discriminate against their teachers, places of worship that do not have to follow health and safety rules, the religious adoption agency that does not have to work with a same sex couple.

If the court rules against Ramirez, then it should be clear on exactly why Ramirez’s religious beliefs cannot be accommodated. Otherwise, the court will be exposed to criticism that it inconsistently applies legal doctrine in order to give gains to advantaged individuals and groups.

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