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U.S. Supreme Court Grants Texas Prisoner Religious Touch and Audible Prayer During Execution

by Matt Clarke

On March 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) held that a Texas death row prisoner was likely to prevail on his claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., that the state unduly burdened his exercise of religion by refusing to allow religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber.

Prior to 2019, Texas opened its execution chamber to prison chaplains, all of whom were Christian or Muslim. When a Buddhist prisoner filed suit to have his spiritual advisor present, and SCOTUS sided with the prisoner in Murphy v. Collier, 139 S. Ct. 1111 (2019), Texas responded by banning all spiritual advisors from executions.

Following that, in Gutierrez v. Saenz, 141 S. Ct. 127 (2020) and Dunn v. Smith, 141 S. Ct. 725 (2021), SCOTUS refused to permit executions to proceed unless prisoners were allowed to have a spiritual advisor present in the execution chamber. Texas reacted by changing its protocol to permit the presence of a spiritual advisor, without mentioning religious touch and audible prayer, which its chaplains had long been permitted to do.

It was against this backdrop that condemned Texas prisoner John H. Ramirez, 36, faced execution on September 9, 2021, for the 2004 robbery and fatal stabbing of Pablo Castro in the parking lot of the Corpus Christi convenience store where he worked. For his date with death, Ramirez asked to invite a Baptist pastor from the church where he was a member, so that he could “lay hands” on the prisoner and “pray over” him during his execution.

The request was denied, so Ramirez filed a grievance. When that was also denied, he appealed to prison system officials. But with his execution looming, he also filed a suit in federal court for the Southern District of Texas, alleging the ban on religious touch and audible prayer violated both RLUIPA and the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.

Ramirez’s appeal to his grievance was then denied, reaffirming that he would not be permitted religious touch or audible prayer. So he filed an amended complaint seeking an injunction ordering the state to allow his pastor to lay hands on and pray over him. He also sought a stay of execution so the claims could be litigated.

The district court denied the stay. Ramirez turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where two of three judges on the panel affirmed the lower court’s denial. So Ramirez petitioned for a writ of certiorari from SCOTUS. The Court granted it and stayed the execution while it heard the case.

The Court limited its review to the RLUIPA claim, since that was the only one Ramirez briefed. Texas argued the claim could not be addressed because Ramirez had not exhausted his administrative remedies before filing the lawsuit, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). But the Court said Texas had waived that defense by failing to raise it in the lower courts. However, the Court also noted that Ramirez had filed an amended complaint after exhausting administrative remedies, arguably curing that defect. Favorably citing Rhodes v. Robinson, 621 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir. 2010), the Court agreed that an amended complaint in a PLRA case supersedes the original, which thereafter is treated as “non-existent.”

As to the merits of Ramirez’s claim, the Court said that “given the rich history of [audible] clerical prayer at the time of a prisoner’s execution,” and the fact that many other states permit both that and religious touch, Ramirez was likely to prevail on his claims. Further, he would clearly suffer “irreparable harm” in the meantime were his execution not stayed, so he was entitled to preliminary injunctive relief on that request, too.

Thus the Fifth Circuit’s judgment was reversed and remanded with instructions to forward to the district court that it should issue the injunction if Texas rescheduled the execution without provisions for religious touch and audible prayer. On his appeal, Ramirez was represented by Houston attorney Seth Kretzer. See: Ramirez v. Collier, 142 S. Ct. 1264 (2022).

On April 12, 2022, an assistant district attorney in Nueces County issued a new warrant for Ramirez’s execution, scheduling it for the following October 5th. But two days later, District Attorney Mark Gonzalez (D) overruled his subordinate and moved to withdraw the warrant. Though his office had requested all three of Ramirez’s earlier execution dates, Gonzalez said he was unaware before that he didn’t have to do so. Learning he wasn’t compelled to seek a date, he wanted to withdraw his request because “the death penalty is unethical and should not be imposed on Mr. Ramirez or any other person.”

Castro’s four children then filed an amicus curiae brief opposing that withdrawal in the state’s 94th District Court on May 5, 2022. On June 21, 2022, Judge Bobby Galvan told Gonzalez that he is “captain of the ship,” so his subordinates were acting on his authority. As a result, he said, “I’m not going to withdraw the warrant.” 

Additional sources: CNN, Corpus Christi Caller Times, Texas Tribune

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Related legal case

Ramirez v. Collier