The U.S. Supreme Court halted Sept. 8 the execution of a Texas inmate who has brought suit to have a Southern Baptist pastor lay hands on and pray for him when he receives a lethal injection.
The high court granted a stay of the execution on the same night John Ramirez was scheduled to receive the death penalty for a 2004 murder in Corpus Christi, Texas. In a one-paragraph order, the court said oral arguments in the case will take place in October or November.
Ramirez, 37, sued Texas prison officials Aug. 10 for refusing to permit Dana Moore, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, to minister to him when he is executed. He filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court after a federal judge and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans both refused to stay the execution.
In his Sept. 7 application to the high court, Ramirez said the Texas prison policy regarding his execution violates a federal law that protects the religious free exercise of inmates.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) welcomed the high court’s order.
“In moments of crisis, people need access to their pastor,” said Brent Leatherwood, the ERLC’s vice president of external affairs and chief of staff. “It not only undermines religious freedom, but it is offensive to basic human decency to deny an individual’s plea to have their pastor praying at their side as they pass from this life.
“The Supreme Court made the correct move here because, unless the state can prove there is some clear overriding security issue, there is no reasonable reason Pastor Moore should be prevented from physically ministering to Mr. Ramirez in this solemn moment,” Leatherwood said in written comments. “When an appeal like this is made on religious grounds – even when a life is about to come to an end – the state still has no right to pave over the conscience.”
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) said it would have no statement on the order since the department “does not comment on pending litigation.”
In his lawsuit, Ramirez is described as a “devout Christian.” Moore has ministered to Ramirez since 2016, when the prisoner was accepted as a member of Second Baptist Church. In 2008, Ramirez was convicted of the murder of convenience store clerk Pablo Castro, whom he stabbed 29 times during a robbery.
After the federal lawsuit was filed in August, Moore told Baptist Press, “My role is to be a minister to John, and part of my ministry is being able to comfort him and part of that is to touch him in some way.
“John wants me to be able to touch him during the most stressful and difficult time in his life as he is being executed, and that physical touch is what I find in scripture as very meaningful.
“Jesus healed with touch,” said Moore, a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “He had the children come to Him and He held them close, and we see in James the anointing of others which involves touch. It is a traditional practice for us (as Southern Baptists), if we can and if it’s appropriate, to touch. To me it’s an encouragement and a blessing.”
The application to the Supreme Court said Ramirez believes Moore’s “laying on of hands on him as he dies, and the vocalization of prayers and scripture, will assist his passing from life to death and will guide his path to the afterlife.”
In the application, Ramirez based his request for the stay on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which became law in 2000. The act prohibits the government from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion by an inmate and, in land-use cases, by a person or institution. The government, however, can gain an exemption from the law if it can show it has a compelling interest and is using the “least restrictive means” to further that interest.
The application says the TDCJ’s current ban not only on Moore laying holds on Ramirez but praying and reading the Bible ignores “less restrictive alternatives.” Moore could pray, sing prayers or read scripture next to Ramirez or further away, according to the application.
In opposing Ramirez’s request for a stay, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told the Supreme Court the inmate had failed to show the TDCJ had substantially burdened his religious free exercise or fallen short of using the “least restrictive means.”
“That a state may not impose policies coercing an inmate to do what his religious [tenets] forbid does not mean that it must accede to his every religious demand,” Paxton said in the opposition brief. “By design, prisons impede inmates’ freedom to behave as they might wish, which necessarily limits some of their religious behavior.”
The TDCJ changed its policy on permitting clergy in the execution chamber after the Supreme Court stayed Patrick Murphy’s execution in 2019 because his Buddhist spiritual advisor was not allowed to be present though Christian and Muslim chaplains were. The department barred all spiritual advisors from the execution chamber until it revised its policy in April of this year to permit their presence. Chaplains are not permitted to pray or read scripture while in the chamber, however.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)