HUNTSVILLE, Texas – When do the religious rights of a death row inmate end?
That will be the question presented to the United States Supreme Court on Tuesday during arguments in Ramirez vs. Collier, a religious freedom case that challenges restrictions the state of Texas places on religious advisers it allows to preside over executions. .
John Henry Ramirez and his lawyer Seth Kretzer argued that spiritual advisers should be allowed to touch detainees and pray aloud while state officials carry out executions. Texas prison officials say touching poses a safety risk and prayers said out loud could be disruptive.
“TDCJ’s execution protocols balance multiple interests, including the solemnity of the occasion, the interests of the state in the enforcement of valid criminal judgments,” state officials said in court records .
These interests include maintaining consistency in executions to reduce the risk of errors, the safety and confidentiality of execution staff, the rights of the detainee and closure for the victim’s family and the community, said. state officials.
The High Court review comes after the Texas prison system in April overturned a two-year ban on spiritual counselors in the death chamber, but limited what they can do. Texas instituted the ban after the Supreme Court in 2019 arrested the execution of Patrick Murphy, who argued his religious freedom was being violated because his Buddhist spiritual advisor was not allowed to accompany him.
Murphy remains on death row.
“The state recognizes that it has changed its practices over the past two years in response to challenges to the religious freedom of those on death row and to suggestions from this tribunal on what the law may require. But instead of providing detainees of various faiths with equal access to religious behavior traditionally permitted for decades in hundreds of TDCJ executions, the state’s strategy, in different forms, has been to achieve parity by reducing religious exercise which he tolerates from anyone, ”Kretzer said. in court records.
The execution protocols adopted in April established procedures for appointing a spiritual advisor not employed by the TDCJ to be present inside the chamber during the execution. However, Kretzer argued that “nowhere in the new protocols is a spiritual advisor prohibited from touching an inmate or praying audibly during an execution.”
The Supreme Court has dealt with the presence of spiritual advisers in the death chamber in recent years, but has not made a final decision. Ramirez and Kretzer cite the First Amendment to the US Constitution as well as a 2000 federal law that protects the religious rights of an inmate.
Pending arguments delayed or postponed six executions that were scheduled in Texas this year with religious freedom claims linked to spiritual advisers.
Executions in Texas have been sporadic over the past two years, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with just three lethal injections performed last year and three executions so far this year. By comparison, Texas carried out 13 executions in 2018 and nine in 2019.
CNHI Information Service