- The Washington Times
Tuesday, November 9, 2021

John Henry Ramirez will almost certainly be executed by Texas for having robbed a convenience store worker of $1.25 then stabbing him 29 times, killing him.

His lawyer went before the Supreme Court on Tuesday to ask the justices to rule that, when the time comes, he‘s allowed to have his pastor in the execution chamber, touching him and praying out loud as the lethal injection is delivered.

The case left the justices trying to weigh Texas’s stated interest in reducing the risk of something going wrong — perhaps a pastor suddenly trying to foil the execution — with a condemned person’s desire for religious comfort in their final moments of life.

Many of the justices seemed skeptical of Ramirez‘s claims, pointing to his repeated legal challenges to his execution and worrying about unleashing a flurry of last-minute cases from other condemned inmates who will bring their own demands, should he win.

“What’s going to happen when the next prisoner says that I have a religious belief that he should touch my knee, he should hold my hand, he should put his hand over my heart, he should be able to put his hand on my head?” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said. “We’re going to have to go through the whole human anatomy with a series of cases.”

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh worried about the flood of claims.

“If we rule in your favor here, this is going to be a heavy part of our docket for years to come,” he told Seth Kretzer, Ramirez‘s lawyer.

Ramirez was scheduled to be executed two months ago, but the high court issued a last-minute stay in order to hear the case.

Several justices wondered whether the fight over his pastor’s presence was a stalling tactic, rather than a demand of his faith.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) says government bodies must use the least intrusive means to carry out their business when confronted with an inmate’s religious beliefs.

Texas argues that having a pastor praying audibly or touching an inmate during the injection increases chances of something going wrong in one of the most serious acts a government can perform.

The state seemed to have an ally in Justice Kavanaugh.

“It’s about the most fraught situation anyone can imagine, especially if the person is by definition close to the inmate spiritually, friends, and they’re about to die and be put to death. The idea that we can predict how another human being will react in that situation?” he said.

Mr. Kretzer said that just doesn’t happen: “There’s not a single instance of any chaplain ever causing any such disturbance.”

Even if the risk is low, Texas Solicitor General Judd Stone told the court the potential harm could be so “catastrophic” — intolerable pain for the condemned or prolonging emotional suffering for victims — that states should be allowed leeway under RLUIPA to write their rules.

“We’re attempting to minimize almost all the way to zero as much as we reasonably can,” Mr. Stone said.

He said the state’s execution chamber is small, 9 feet by 12 feet, and can accommodate maybe three people.

Justice Elena Kagan pointed out that Texas used to have its own chaplains in the room, so having a religious figure is not impossible for the state.

Mr. Stone countered that those chaplains were state employees, while allowing the condemned to have a person of their choosing brings new risks, and the state would have to station a security officer to prevent any problems, which means the warden cannot be present.

Justice Kagan pointed out that the federal government and other states such as Alabama have determined they can accommodate the same type of situation Texas objects to.

The case, Ramirez v. Collier, is the latest in a series of cases coursing through the courts and dealing with the religious needs of those facing execution.

A number of states had official chaplains who were able to be present, mostly Christian. The high court, in a 2019 ruling, blocked Texas from executing a man who had wanted to have a Buddhist religious adviser present. The court said Texas couldn’t play favorites among religions.

Texas banned all clergy from the chamber, then relaxed the policy to allow clergy in only as passive observers, not touching or praying audibly over the condemned.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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