In last-minute plea to Supreme Court, lawyers beg for prayer in execution chamber

Christine Rousselle   By Christine Rousselle for CNA

Pastor Dana Moore / Second Baptist Church, Corpus Christi, Texas

Washington D.C., Sep 8, 2021 / 14:04 pm (CNA).

Religious freedom advocates are urging that Texas honor the request of a death row inmate to be prayed over in the execution chamber.

John Henry Ramirez, 37, is set to be executed on Wednesday evening, Sept. 8. He wishes to be prayed over by his pastor, who would lay hands on him as he dies. Both of those requests have been denied by Texas prison officials, who say that the audible prayer and physical contact amount to distractions and security risks within the execution chamber.

Ramirez has appealed to the Supreme Court for a stay of execution so his case can be considered. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on Tuesday filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to block Texas’ restrictions, or halt Ramirez’s execution to more fully consider his case.

“For centuries, clergy have prayed aloud at the time of execution,” Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, told CNA on Wednesday. “We hope the Court will recognize this long standing tradition and tell Texas to allow prayer in the death chamber.”

Ramirez was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of 45-year-old convenience store clerk Pablo Castro in 2004. He now seeks to have Pastor Dana Moore of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi present with him as he receives lethal injection, and laying hands on him as he is dying.

The “laying on of hands” is a Christian practice of blessing someone. Moore has been Ramirez’s spiritual advisor for the last five years.

Becket’s amicus brief, filed by attorneys Rassbach and Chris Pagliarella, argued that Ramirez’s requests are not unreasonable, and that Texas’ denial of his request is a violation of his First Amendment rights.

“The right of a condemned person to the comfort of clergy—and the corresponding right of clergy to comfort the condemned—are among the longest-standing and most well-recognized religious exercises known to civilization,” said Becket’s brief, filed on Sept. 7.

“And in multiple emergency-docket cases, this Court has spoken clearly on these rights in the modern death chamber: comfort of clergy is a religious exercise, and prohibiting it is subject to strict scrutiny,” they said.

While Texas did not permit any spiritual advisors in the execution chamber for a two-year period from April 2019 until April 2021, it does now allow for personal religious ministers to accompany the inmate inside the chamber. However, they cannot pray aloud or make physical contact with the inmate.

​​The Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, was asked on Wednesday about Ramirez’s request.

“Should he be allowed to meet his creator, having the support of a pastor? I say yes,” Gregory stated at a luncheon of the National Press Club.

While saying he did not know all the details of the case, Gregory added that “if this man wants to pray with his minister, and his minister pray with him, it might very well be a sign that there is some reconciliation, conversion, going on within him.”

The state had previously banned spiritual advisors from the chamber, following Patrick Murphy’s request for a Buddhist chaplain to join him at his execution in 2019. At the time, Texas only allowed state employees in the death chamber, and the state did not employ a Buddhist chaplain.

After re-admitting spiritual advisors to the death chamber in April, however, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice changed policy and “abruptly added a rule that would bar clergy from praying aloud,” says the Becket brief.

“By a letter dated August 19, it took the position not only that the chaplain would have a ‘No-Contact’ policy, but also a ‘No-Speaking’ policy—which Texas now explains as disallowing any ‘audible prayer’ with and for the condemned,” Becket said.

“Given that focus on history, and the long tradition of audible prayer by clergy at the moment of death, the scope of the constitutional right is clear—audible prayer should be allowed,” the attorneys explained.

Tradition that predates the founding of the United States upholds “respectful, nondisruptive—but audible—prayer at the time of executions,” said the brief. “Such expression was key to both the solace and spiritual help sought by the condemned and the guiding role the clergy sought to provide.”

The state of Texas said that audible prayer in the execution chamber would amount to “disruptive conduct.”

This argument, “fails on its face, and is particularly odd in light of evidence that prayer has been allowed in the execution chamber without incident in multiple jurisdictions, including the federal government and Texas itself in the past,” the Becket brief stated.

Ramirez’s attorneys filed a lawsuit on Aug.12 in federal district court, claiming that the state is violating his First Amendment rights in denying him the “direct, personal contact” of his pastor. The laying on of hands is a “a long-held and practiced tradition in Christianity in general and in the Protestant belief system Mr. Ramirez adheres to,” the complaint stated.

In the 2004 murder of Castro, Ramirez and two women attempted to rob Castro for money to buy drugs. Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times. Castro had $1.25 on him, which the three took.

The women were arrested the night of Castro’s murder, and both were sent to prison in 2006. One of the women, Christina Chavez, was convicted of three counts of aggravated robbery and was sentenced to 25 years in jail. The other, Angela Rodriguez, was convicted of two counts of aggravated robbery and one count of murder. Rodriguez was sentenced to life in prison but will be eligible for parole in 2035.

Ramirez was arrested nearly four years later, in February 2008. He was found near Brownsville, Texas, near the border between the United States and Mexico.

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