BJC joins brief in Supreme Court case involving prisoner’s request for ministerial act during lethal injection
[UPDATE 10/25/2021: The U.S. Supreme Court will now hear this case on November 9 instead of November 1. Original post below.]
On November 1, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Ramirez v. Collier, a case brought by death row inmate John Henry Ramirez challenging Texas’ refusal to allow his pastor to lay hands on him and audibly pray with him at the time of his execution. The Court issued a reprieve for Mr. Ramirez just hours before his scheduled execution and agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis. BJC joined a brief urging the Court to side with the prisoner, “to prevent him from being executed in a manner inconsistent with his right to exercise his religion in the last minutes of his life.”
The case was brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which, among other things, bars state and local governments from posing a substantial burden on the religious free exercise of inmates unless that burden is necessary to further a compelling government interest. In the brief, BJC joined the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and other groups in arguing that Texas has failed to demonstrate the necessity of its blanket restriction on audible prayers and laying on hands in the execution chamber.
[T]he State has not provided specific evidence of how audible prayers or touching the condemned prisoner would necessarily create security problems implicating compelling governmental interests. Throughout its filings, the State has asserted concerns about order and security in an array of generalized terms rather than identifying specific problems….
But the State does not say precisely what the security or safety concerns are or how audible prayers or touching would necessarily undermine its interests. Whose safety is in jeopardy? The inmate? The physician administering the injection? What are the potential security breaches the State is attempting to mitigate? Smuggling contraband? Interference with the injection? Throughout its filings in this Court and the courts below, the State has failed RLUIPA’s requirement that it specify how its ban furthers its asserted compelling interests.
There is no dispute that prisons, and particularly death row, can be dangerous and require substantial security measures to protect everyone’s safety. But if those restrictions infringe significantly on something as precious and fundamental as religious liberty – which all people, including condemned prisoners, are entitled to enjoy – then the state should have to prove why those restrictions are necessary. That is how RLUIPA is designed to work, and it is why it’s such an important tool in protecting religious liberty.
As BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman explains, this case is about protecting the rights of all incarcerated persons, not just Mr. Ramirez, by ensuring that courts apply RLUIPA in a way that holds the state to the standard the law demands:
While security and order are vital state interests in the prison context, those interests do not shut down the application of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The state must show that its interests justify this burden on the prisoner’s right to religious freedom.
We joined this brief with the Christian Legal Society and other groups to urge the Supreme Court to clarify the proper interpretation and application of RLUIPA. The lower courts misapplied the statute, and we hope the Supreme Court will correct that error and affirm RLUIPA’s protections for all prisoners.
Read more from Holly in this story in the Baptist Standard.
A live audio feed of the November 1 argument is expected to be available, according to a press release from the Court discussing its anticipated procedures for the rest of this year.
For more background on this case and general topic, see my previous post here; see also BJC’s resource page on RLUIPA and listen to an episode of Religion News Service’s Beliefs podcast from 2019 featuring BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler discussing a different death chamber case.