Texas death penalty case set for oral arguments in Supreme Court

TDCJ (Courtesy Photo) Spiritual advisors are instructed to stand in the corner of the death chamber, and are not allowed to pray out loud or touch the offender. 

HUNTSVILLE — When do the religious rights of an individual condemned to death end?

That will be the question presented to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday during arguments in Ramirez vs. Collier, a religious liberty case that challenges restrictions the State of Texas imposes upon religious advisors it allows to preside during executions.

John Henry Ramirez, and his attorney Seth Kretzer, have argued spiritual advisers should be allowed to touch inmates and pray aloud as state officials perform executions. Texas prison officials contend touching poses a security risk and that prayers said aloud could be disruptive.

“TDCJ’s execution protocols balance multiple interests, including the solemnity of the occasion, the state’s interests in enforcing valid criminal judgments,” state officials said in court filings.

Those interests include maintaining uniformity in executions to reduce the opportunity for errors, the safety and privacy of execution personnel, the rights of the inmate and closure for the victim’s family and the community, state officials said.

The high court’s review comes after the Texas prison system in April reversed a two-year ban on spiritual advisers in the death chamber, but limited what they can do. Texas instituted the ban after the Supreme Court in 2019 halted the execution of Patrick Murphy, who had argued his religious freedom was being violated because his Buddhist spiritual adviser wasn’t allowed to accompany him.

Murphy remains on death row.

“The state acknowledges that it changed practices in the past two years in response to religious-liberty challenges from death-row inmates and this court’s suggestions of what the law may require. But instead of providing inmates of diverse faiths equal access to religious behavior traditionally allowed for decades in hundreds of TDCJ executions, the state’s strategy, in different forms, has been to achieve parity by ratcheting down the religious exercise it tolerates from anyone,” Kretzer said in court filings.

Execution protocols adopted in April, established procedures to designate a non-TDCJ employed spiritual advisor to be present inside the chamber during the execution. However, Kretzer argued that “nowhere in the new protocols is there any prohibition on a spiritual advisor touching an inmate or audibly praying during an execution.”

The Supreme Court has dealt with the presence of spiritual advisers in the death chamber in recent years but has not made a definitive ruling. Ramirez and Kretzer are citing the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as well as a 2000 federal law that protects an inmate's religious rights.

The pending arguments have delayed or postponed six executions that were scheduled in Texas this year with religious freedom claims related to spiritual advisors.

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

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