Texas Supreme Court case could affect the role of spiritual advisers at executions

The court ruled Texas likely violated a death-row inmate’s religious liberties.

By Rhonda Fanning & Addie CostelloMarch 25, 2022 8:58 am, ,

In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas’ denial of a death-row inmate’s request for a spiritual adviser to touch and pray over him during his execution was likely unconstitutional, violating his religious freedom. 

John Henry Ramirez was sentenced to life in prison for a 2008 murder and scheduled for execution in September 2021, which was postponed because of the court case. Texas does not permit spiritual advisers to touch inmates during executions, and had rejected Ramirez’s request for that.

But his case is not yet resolved. The Supreme Court decision only indicates that Ramirez’s case in a lower court has merit. The lower court, in this case a federal district court in Houston, will still need to issue an official ruling.

Lisa Eskow is the co-director of the Supreme Court Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. She spoke with Texas Standard about the case and what it means for Texas inmates. Listen to the interview with Eskow in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: It’s my understanding the Supreme Court Clinic at the University of Texas College of Law actually served as co-counsel, representing Ramirez in this case. 

Lisa Eskow: That is absolutely correct. We each took the lead on briefing, and we worked in collaboration with Seth Kretzer, who was counsel and who argued the case, so we were deeply involved.

What rights did you argue the state violated in Ramirez’s case?

He had both First Amendment and statutory claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA. And the Supreme Court had directed us to focus on the RLUIPA claim, so that’s what there was. But it did proceed under that statutory framework, and that’s what the court analyzed. 

In this 8-1 ruling, it sounds like the court is saying Texas likely violated Ramirez’s rights. What does this mean from legal and practical standpoints?

It went up to the court in a preliminary posture. There had never been a full evidentiary hearing or judgment on the merits from the courts below. It had been dismissed in a very preliminary posture. So at this point, essentially what Mr. Ramirez was requesting was a preliminary injunction against Texas executing him in violation of his religious liberty rights.

And so, at that point, all the court needed to decide was whether he had a likelihood of succeeding on the merits – whether he’d suffer irreparable harm. And the public interest favored an injunction and the court decided “yes” on all of those counts.

So the case does go back to the trial court now. But, you know, the court strongly cautioned that it’s up to the state to think about really what its interests are here and if it’s going to continue to press this going forward.

What does this mean for Ramirez, at least in the short term? Is the execution effectively on hold as this trial continues?

There’s no pending execution date at this point. The execution warrant expired. So Texas would have to reset and seek a new execution date for him in order to proceed with that. And the court has said that if it does so without granting him the accommodation of religious exercise he seeks, that the district court should enjoin that and prevent the state from doing so until that can be fleshed out. But I think there’s a question here, you know, of what Texas will pursue.

Where does this ruling leave prison rules in the interim? Have other death-row inmates made similar requests?

Yes, and they’ve been going on for quite some time. The court has made clear in recent years that prison systems can’t discriminate between religions in terms of the accommodations and the presence of spiritual advisers in chambers.

Texas, at one point, decided to deviate from decades of past practice and banned all spiritual advisers of all faiths from the chambers. That’s what was going on when Mr. Ramirez started initially pursuing relief. And then Texas flipped and allowed the spiritual advisers to be present, but started incrementally doling out these new restrictions, including, [that] the adviser could be there but not touch the inmate, and the adviser could be there but not pray out loud. And those are things that had happened in Texas and in other jurisdictions for decades.

But inexplicably, Texas decided to withdraw and withhold that form of religious exercise from the execution chamber. So it’s been an evolving process. But yes, there are not only death-row inmates in Texas, but also elsewhere in the country who have been pursuing their rights in this fashion. And this is something that, now, it’s very clear that prisons will have to carefully look at.

Why do you think the Supreme Court ruled on this issue versus other areas of civil-liberty violations in the justice system?

I think that in our criminal justice system there are so many things that are troubling in how these proceedings unfold and some of the problematic ways in which judgments get rendered and people find themselves incarcerated under conditions that are very concerning.

But I think that this is obviously one aspect of rights that prisoners may be asserting, and I think there’s no question that the majority of the court has a lot of concern about religious liberty, and it’s a priority for the court. I think that you had several factors align that led to this result, and hopefully it also will just shed some light on the process and humanize it. And maybe we’ll see some of these protections extended in other directions, too, as they should be.

This story has been updated to include the federal district court that will take up Ramirez’s case now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on its merits.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.