Monday, November 29, 2021

High Court to Consider Texas Prayer Case During Executions

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court is to hear arguments on whether Texas should allow a chaplain to pray loudly and touch a prisoner during execution.

Executions in Texas, the busiest state with regard to the death penalty, have been postponed while a court hears the matter. The result will not get anyone out of death row, but it may clarify what religious measures officials should take for prisoners on death row.

The case before the judges concerns John Henry Ramirez, who is on death row for the murder of an employee at Corpus Christi convenience store during a 2004 robbery. Ramirez stabbed the man, Pablo Castro, 29 times and stole $ 1.25 from him.

Ramirez’s lawyers were suing after Texas said it would not allow his minister to pray loudly and touch him when he is being lethally injected. The lower courts sided with Texas, but the Supreme Court suspended his execution on September 8 to hear his case.

Texas says the inmate’s spiritual guide can pray and advise the inmate until the inmate is taken to the execution chamber and restrained on a gurney. But Texas says that after that, while the spirit guide is nearby, they cannot talk to or touch the prisoner.

“An outsider touching a prisoner during lethal injection poses an unacceptable risk to the safety, integrity and solemnity of the execution,” Texas told judges.

Texas also says Ramirez’s request is another attempt to delay his execution.

Ramirez’s lawyers, for their part, tell the court that federal law protecting prisoners’ religious rights requires the state to allow Pastor Ramirez to pray loudly and lay hands on him when he is executed.

“These ministries are deeply rooted in the applicant’s sincere religious convictions and reflect the fundamental importance of prayer, song and human touch as a powerful expression of the Christian faith. Refusal from them imposes a significant burden on the plaintiff’s free confession of religion, ”they said in court.

The Biden administration has also spoken out. She noted that under the Trump administration, the federal government carried out a string of 13 executions over six months in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. During executions, at least six religious advisers spoke or prayed aloud with inmates in the execution chamber, and on at least one occasion there was brief physical contact.

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“The federal government has long sought to accommodate prisoners’ religious practices in the execution of death sentences,” said the administration, which ended federal executions.

The administration says its practice is consistent with that of other states, including Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma. It also says news reports and other evidence show that in Texas itself, it has long been allowed for chaplains to participate in sound prayer and sometimes in physical contact with prisoners during executions.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly faced the issue of ministers on death row. In 2019, two inmates asked judges to stop executions over states’ refusal to allow their spiritual advisors into the execution chamber. To address this issue, the high court allowed one execution to continue, but blocked another, Texas prisoner Patrick Murphy.

At the time of Murphy’s planned execution, Texas allowed only state-hired religious advisers to be present in the execution chamber, but hired only Christian and Muslim advisers, not those who were Murphy’s Buddhists. Judge Brett Cavanaugh wrote that Murphy was not treated the same.

In response, Texas banned all clerics from visiting the execution chamber, but the inmates responded with additional lawsuits. Texas eventually changed its policy in 2021 to allow both state-hired chaplains and external spiritual advisers who meet certain verification requirements to enter the execution chamber.

An unresolved legal debate over whether spiritual mentors can touch prisoners and pray loudly during executions of convicts has postponed two final executions scheduled this year in Texas.

Last month, judges rescheduled the executions of Kosul Chantakumman, who was scheduled to die on November 10, and Ramiro Gonzalez, who was scheduled to die on November 17. The new date for Gonzalez’s execution is July 13, and the new date for Chantakumman’s execution is August 17.

Both prisoners claimed that Texas violated their religious freedom by preventing their spiritual advisers from praying loudly and laying hands on their bodies at the time of their death.

State Solicitor General Judd Stone II is the argument in favor of current Texas policy. Stone appeared in court last week to challenge two cases involving controversial Texas law that effectively ended abortion in the country’s second-largest state after six weeks of pregnancy.

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