SCOTUS hears arguments in case involving religious rights of death row inmates

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a unique Texas case that will hinge on the court’s interpretation of religious rights.

As the Washington Examiner explained, the case involves a state prohibition against pastors or other spiritual ministers praying aloud or touching a convict while in the death chamber ahead of his or her execution.

Background on the case

It remains unclear how the justices will rule in this case, especially considering that some of their comments and questions this week did not appear to reflect an anticipated position on the matter.

As for Ramirez v. Collier, the case emerged following a Texas ban implemented in 2019. That measure essentially relegated clergy to a separate room set aside for witnesses during the execution of a convicted murderer.

The Associated Press noted that the prohibition was partially relaxed earlier this year as ministers were once again allowed to enter the chamber ahead of an impending execution. They were still prohibited from vocalizing any prayer or scripture or from touching the inmate.

In the underlying case, death row inmate John Henry Ramirez was sentenced to death after he was convicted of stabbing a gas station clerk 29 times in 2004.

The state presented a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that Ramirez was not sincere in his self-professed religious beliefs when requesting the presence of a spiritual adviser to lay hands on him and pray out loud during his execution. Furthermore, the state maintained that granting such a request would increase the risk for a “catastrophic” failure or mistake during the execution protocols and administration of a lethal injection.

“An unending stream”

An analysis by SCOTUSblog indicated that the court appeared divided on the issue, with Justice Neil Gorsuch — known as a fierce defender of religious liberty — remaining silent the entire time and displaying no hint regarding his thoughts on the arguments.

Conservative Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh seemed to signal that acceding to Ramirez’s request would open the door to “an unending stream” of future litigation involving inmate requests potentially intended to delay a scheduled execution.

Justice Clarence Thomas appeared to suggest that he believes the death row inmate was intending to do just that, though the convict’s attorney insists that the request was made in advance and was sincere.

As for fellow conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, she seemed to side with liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagen in rejecting the state’s concerns that something might go wrong in the execution chamber if a minister were allowed to be present, speak aloud, and lay hands on a condemned inmate.

Of course, a decision in the case is not expected until well into next year, so in the meantime, pundits will be left to wonder how the court’s ruling will be broken down among its justices.

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