U.S. Supreme Court justices are on Tuesday, set to hear a bid by a man sentenced to death in Texas for a fatal 2004 stabbing outside a convenience store to have his pastor lay hands on him during his execution.
The case is a test of how far states must go to accommodate religious requests by condemned inmates.
Oral arguments were set for the justices in convicted murderer John Henry Ramirez’s appeal after lower courts refused to issue a stay of execution ahead of his scheduled lethal injection in September.
The Supreme Court, which has wrestled in recent years over the religious rights of death row inmates, stepped in and issued a stay.
Ramirez is backed in the case by President Joe Biden’s administration and several religious liberty organisations.
Texas contends that Ramirez’s religion-based claims are a transparent delay tactic to avoid execution, comparing them in legal papers to a “game of ecclesiastical whack-a-mole.”
Lawyers for 37 year old Ramirez have argued that the state’s refusal to let his Christian pastor touch him and audibly pray as he dies from the lethal injection violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion as well as federal law.
For both Ramirez and his pastor, laying hands-on, and praying are significant to their religious faith because, “like many Christians, they believe they will either ascend to heaven or descend to hell at the moment of death,” the inmate’s lawyers said in court papers.
His lawyers also argued that the Texas policy of allowing spiritual advisors to be present in the execution chamber but forbidding them from laying hands on the condemned inmate or vocalizing prayer disrespects religion.
They noted that those practices were permitted during Texas executions in the past.
Texas has said its protocol preserves the “security, integrity, and solemnity” of the process and the execution team’s ability to observe signs of distress.
The case centres on religious protections for condemned inmates under the First Amendment and a 2000 federal law that requires officials to show a compelling interest to deny a prisoner’s religious-based request and to do so using the least restrictive means.
Ramirez was sentenced to death for the murder of Pablo Castro, a father of nine who worked nights at a convenience store in the southern Texas city of Corpus Christi.
Needing money to buy drugs, Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times and made off with 1.25 dollars.
For the past four years, Ramirez has been a member of the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, though he cannot attend services in person. Pastor Dana Moore regularly drives about 300 miles (480 km) north to Livingston to pray with Ramirez in prison.
Ramirez had sued in a federal court in August. A federal judge and the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, denied his request for a stay of execution.
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