In Ramirez v. Collier the U.S. Supreme Court held 8-1 that John Ramirez’s claim is likely to succeed that Texas violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by not allowing his pastor to audibly pray and lay hands on him while he is being executed.

Ramirez admitted to stabbing Pablo Castro 29 times at the convenience store where Castro worked. A jury sentenced Ramirez to death. Ramirez sued the prison arguing it violated his religious exercise rights under RLUIPA by not allowing his long-time pastor to pray with him and lay hands on him during the execution.

Per RLUIPA a state prison may not impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of an inmate unless the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

The Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, first concluded that Ramirez’s request to be touched by his pastor was likely based on a sincere religious belief. While in his initial complaint Ramirez “disclaimed any need for touch” Ramirez states the complaint was inaccurate and that he would have amended it. But a week after it was filed the parties jointly dismissed that litigation.  

Texas argued it had numerous compelling reasons to disallow audible prayer and touching. The Court didn’t dispute that all were likely compelling but was skeptical any were narrowly tailored.

Texas argued it has a compelling interest in disallowing audible prayer because it may impede prison officials “ability to hear subtle signs of trouble or prove distracting during an emergency” and the spiritual advisor might exploit the opportunity to “make a statement to the witnesses or officials” rather than pray.

According to the Court, there is a less restrictive means of handling these concerns than banning audible prayer: “Prison officials could impose reasonable restrictions on audible prayer in the execution chamber—such as limiting the volume of any prayer so that medical officials can monitor an inmate’s condition, requiring silence during critical points in the execution process . . . , allowing a spiritual advisor to speak only with the inmate, and subjecting advisors to immediate removal for failure to comply with any rule.”

Texas likewise argued it has three compelling interests in disallowing a spiritual advisor to touch an inmate: security, preventing unnecessary suffering, and avoiding further emotional trauma to the victim’s family.

Regarding security, Texas is concerned a spiritual advisor close enough to touch an inmate might “tamper with the prisoner’s restraints or yank out an IV line.” According to the Court, “[u]nder Texas’s current protocol, spiritual advisors stand just three feet from the gurney in the execution chamber. A security escort is posted nearby, ready to intervene if anything goes awry. We do not see how letting the spiritual advisor stand slightly closer, reach out his arm, and touch a part of the prisoner’s body well away from the site of any IV line would meaningfully increase risk.”    

Texas also argued Ramirez’s pastor might harm Ramirez by accidentally interfering with the IV line. The Court opined reasonable measures “short of banning all touch” could address this concern. “For example, Texas could allow touch on a part of the body away from IV lines, such as a prisoner’s lower leg.”

Finally, Texas argued that allowing Ramirez to be touched by his pastor might further traumatize the victim’s family members by “reminding them that their loved one received no such solace.” According to the Court, “what is at issue is allowing Pastor Moore to respectfully touch Ramirez’s foot or lower leg inside the execution chamber. Respondents do not contend that this particular act will result in trauma.”

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