Death Penalty Debate: The Role of Spiritual Advisors During Execution

ISABELLE CARBAJALES—The constitutionality of capital punishment has long been debated. The rights of those on death row and aspects of the death-penalty system have been similarly subject to wide-spread debate. One of the more recent death penalty debates arises in Ramirez v. Collier and questions the role of spiritual advisors during the execution of death row inmates. Specifically, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether a Texas inmate, John Henry Ramirez, is permitted to have his pastor physically touch him and audibly pray during his execution.

Petitioner Ramirez received the death penalty for murdering a store clerk during a robbery spree to obtain drug money. Texas denied his request to have his pastor touch him and speak audibly during his execution and only allowed the pastor to be present in the execution room. Ramirez argues that Texas’s refusal to allow his pastor to touch him and pray aloud during his execution violates his religious freedoms protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Texas cannot deprive him of these rights, he argues, unless they can provide more than mere general security concerns. Ramirez points to the fact that Texas, other states, and the federal government have previously allowed spiritual advisors to conduct such activities during an execution

Texas’s response is twofold. First, they argue that Ramirez’s claims fail on procedural grounds and that his request is solely an attempt to delay his execution. Second, Texas argues that Ramirez has failed to prove that his religious beliefs require his pastor to pray audibly and physically touch him during his execution, as required to receive such an accommodation. Even if he could prevail in proving this, they argue that there is too great a security risk in allowing the pastor to do so.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument from both parties on November 9, 2021. While the Supreme Court has yet to decide the matter, others have stated their opinion on the debate. In support of Ramirez’s request, some individuals suggest that the security concerns presented by the state of Texas are unfounded. To this point, many individuals, including counsel for Ramirez, have pointed to the fact that it is a well-established practice to allow for audible prayer and touching during executions, and no security issues have ever arisen. Notably, Justice Breyer stated that the audibility and physical touching during an execution has never posed a problem. In contrast, in support of the state of Texas’s position, others have argued that allowing for continued civil litigation of criminal sentencing results in unnecessary delays and psychological trauma for the families of victims. Others have opted for a more balanced stance, suggesting that Texas should propose a way in which Ramirez’s request could be granted while still ensuring that no security concerns are present. This may include restricting the areas the spiritual advisor may touch to prevent interference with the administration of the lethal injection.

How the Supreme Court rules is due in part to the make-up of the Court. In this instance, however, the composition of the Court weighs both in favor and against granting Ramirez’s request. Between July 2020 and January 2021, thirteen federal executions took place. This number contrasts sharply with preceding years where not a single person was federally executed in over seventeen years. In response to this trend, Justice Sotomayor stated that the “[Supreme Court] has consistently rejected inmates’ credible claims for relief.” This trend and Sotomayor’s comment may signal the Court’s reluctance to rule in favor of Ramirez. Yet, because of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority’s concern for religious liberties, Ramirez prevailing seems plausible. In particular, the Court’s recent decision to lift the state of California’s Covid-19 restrictions on at-home religious exercise may indicate the Court’s willingness to allow Ramirez’s pastor to physically touch him and pray audibly during his execution.

Ultimately, however, given factors weighing both in favor and against Ramirez’s request, the outcome of this case remains uncertain.