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US Supreme Court to hear case of death row inmate requesting pastor’s touch at execution

Dana Moore, pastor of Second Baptist Church Corpus Christi / Second Baptist Church Corpus Christi/YouTube

Washington D.C., Nov 8, 2021 / 16:02 pm (CNA).

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Ramirez v. Collier on Tuesday, Nov. 9, almost two months after the court delayed a scheduled execution over a question about the role of spiritual advisors in the death chamber. 

The court will consider the constitutionality of Texas’ prohibitions on a spiritual advisor touching a condemned prisoner during his execution, and on a spiritual advisor audibly praying or singing during an execution under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. 

John Henry Ramirez, 37, was originally set to be executed Sept. 8 at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. His execution was delayed hours before it was due to occur after the Supreme Court intervened, agreeing to hear his case. 

Ramirez 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. He was told that this would not be possible and that ​​personal contact by his pastor would not be permitted.

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

While Texas did not permit any spiritual advisors in the execution chamber for a two-year period from April 2019 until April 2021, it now allows for personal religious ministers to accompany the inmate inside the chamber. However, those personal religious ministers are no longer permitted to speak or to touch the condemned. 

Ramirez’s attorneys filed a lawsuit 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 states.

The state has not “indicated” whether it will allow Moore to be present with Ramirez at his death, the lawsuit claims.

Ramirez was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of 45-year-old convenience store clerk Pablo Castro in 2004. 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. 

His lawsuit says that the state’s denial of personal contact by his pastor “places a substantial burden” on his religious practice. He says the state is denying it to him during the “‘spiritually charged final moments of life,’ leading up to and including his execution, when religious observance and spiritual guidance are most critical.”

“No compelling security interest justifies the burden on his religious exercise,” the lawsuit states.

Texas in 2019 banned all prison chaplains from its execution chamber, following a Supreme Court order that halted the execution of Patrick Murphy, who requested a Buddhist minister in the chamber. Only state employees are allowed to be with the condemned in the execution chamber, and Texas did not have a Buddhist chaplain on staff.

However, rather than hire a Buddhist chaplain, Texas decided to bar the practice of allowing chaplains in the execution chamber altogether. Murphy’s execution has not been rescheduled and he remains on death row.

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