High Court to hear Texas case on prayer during executions

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court is due to hear arguments in a case over whether Texas should allow a chaplain to audibly pray and touch a prisoner during an execution.

Executions in Texas, the nation’s highest death penalty state, have been delayed while the court examines the matter. The result won’t get anyone off death row, but could spell out the religious accommodations that authorities must make for inmates who are put to death.

The case before the judges involves John Henry Ramirez, who is on death row for killing an employee of a Corpus Christi convenience store during a robbery in 2004. Ramirez stabbed the man, Pablo Castro, 29 times and stole $ 1.25 from him.

Ramirez’s lawyers have sued after Texas said it would not allow its minister to audibly pray and touch him while he was given a lethal injection. Lower courts sided with Texas, but the Supreme Court suspended his execution on September 8 to hear his case.

Texas says an inmate’s spiritual advisor can pray and counsel an inmate until the inmate is taken to the execution chamber and strapped to a stretcher. But Texas says after that, as long as the spiritual advisor is nearby, they can’t speak or touch the inmate.

“An alien touching the inmate during the lethal injection poses an unacceptable risk to the safety, integrity and solemnity of the execution,” Texas told judges.

Texas also says Ramirez’s request is just another attempt to delay his execution.

Ramirez’s lawyers, for their part, tell the court that a federal law that protects prisoners’ religious rights requires the state to allow Ramirez’s pastor to audibly pray and lay his hands on him while he is put to death.

“These ministries are deeply rooted in the applicant’s sincere religious beliefs and reflect the fundamental importance of prayer, song, and human contact as powerful expressions of Christian faith. Refusing them imposes a substantial burden on the applicant’s free exercise of religion, ”they told the court.

The Biden administration also weighed in. She noted that under the Trump administration, the federal government carried out a series of 13 executions in six months at the federal execution chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana. During these executions, at least six religious advisers spoke or prayed audibly with the detainees in the execution room and in at least one case there was brief physical contact.

“The federal government has long sought to accommodate the religious practices of inmates when serving death sentences,” said the administration, which has suspended federal executions.

The administration says its practices are consistent with those of other states, including Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma. He also says news reports and other evidence shows that Texas itself has long allowed chaplains to engage in audible prayers and sometimes physical contact with inmates during executions.

The Supreme Court has faced the issue of ministers in the death chamber on several occasions in recent years. In 2019, two detainees asked judges to suspend their executions due to states’ refusal to allow their spiritual advisers in the execution chamber. Struggling with the issue, the High Court allowed one execution to continue but blocked the other, that of Texas inmate Patrick Murphy.

At the time of Murphy’s planned execution, Texas only allowed state-employed religious advisers to be present in the execution chamber, but only employed Christian and Muslim advisers, not Buddhists, Murphy’s faith. Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote that Murphy was not treated equally.

Texas responded by banning all clergy from the execution chamber, but inmates responded with additional prosecutions. Texas eventually changed its policy in 2021 to allow both state-employed chaplains and outside spiritual advisers who meet certain screening requirements to enter the execution chamber.

The unresolved legal debate over whether spiritual counselors can touch inmates and pray aloud as convicts are put to death has delayed the last two executions scheduled for this year in Texas.

Last month, judges postponed the executions of Kosoul Chanthakoummane, who was due to die on November 10, and Ramiro Gonzales, who was scheduled for November 17. Gonzales’ new performance date is July 13 while Chanthakoummane’s new date is August 17.

Both inmates claimed Texas violated their religious freedom by not allowing their spiritual advisers to pray aloud and lay a hand on their bodies when they died.

Judd Stone II, the state solicitor general, argues the case for current Texas politics. Stone was in court last week to plead two cases involving a controversial Texas law that virtually ended abortion in the nation’s second largest state after six weeks of pregnancy.

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