The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this past week in a religious rights case out of Texas involving a convicted murderer facing imminent execution and his desire for his pastor to be present to pray aloud and lay hands on him at his time of death.
In a rather unexpected development, some of the conservative justices seemed to question the sincerity of the inmate’s religiosity while the liberal justices appeared to side with the murderer’s religious request, Newsweek reported.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as well as Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, asked a series of questions that revolved around the possibility that death row inmates could cite religious beliefs as a way to delay their scheduled execution while simultaneously flooding the courts with last-minute litigation.
The case is known as Ramirez v. Collier and it is centered on whether a Texas law allowing spiritual advisers to be present as an observer in the execution chamber, but expressly forbidden from speaking aloud or touching the condemned inmate, is a violation of a prisoner’s constitutional religious rights under federal law.
“Gaming the system”
Justice Thomas got the ball rolling in the oral arguments Tuesday by noting the late date, relative to the execution, that Ramirez had filed the request to not only have his pastor present but also for him to be allowed to lay hands on him, and pray aloud for his salvation.
He seemingly questioned the “sincerity” of the inmate’s stated religious beliefs and raised the possibility that Ramirez was simply “gaming the system” to try and delay his inevitable execution.
Justice Kavanaugh soon stepped in and made note that, if different individualized religious requests, whether sincere or not, were handled on an inmate-by-inmate basis, as suggested by Ramirez’s attorney, that would likely result in inmates constantly “moving the goalposts” to “delay executions” by seeking individualized accommodations from the courts.
He later provided several examples, such as requests for multiple spiritual advisers or the provision of communion or for a “hug” instead of a mere touch — all of which would eventually need to be dealt with by the courts on an individualized basis, and be a “heavy part of our docket for years to come.”
That line of concern was also picked up by Justice Alito, who suggested that, if the court granted this accommodation to Ramirez, it could “look forward to an unending stream of variations” of other inmates seeking different accommodations that would inevitably delay their executions.
Justice Kavanaugh also spoke to the need to balance four different things in such cases: the sincerity of the professed beliefs, the substantial burden on the inmate’s rights, the compelling interests of the state in the matter, and whether the request could be accommodated by the least restrictive means.
Ultimately, he seemed to align himself more with the state’s interest in limiting the risk of the possibility of a “catastrophic” accident or botched execution, caused either on purpose or inadvertently by the religious adviser and what they may say or do while in the chamber.
Of course, nobody can say for certain how any of the justices will rule in this particular case, and it will be several months into next year before a final decision is rendered.