Supreme Court asked to protect clergy prayer for Texas Death Row Inmate

A Texas death row inmate is asking the Supreme Court to protect his first freedom in his last hour. In Ramirez v. Collier, John Henry Ramirez has appealed to the Court to allow his spiritual advisor—a Southern Baptist pastor—to pray over him in the execution chamber. The Court will hear argument in the case on November 1. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief yesterday arguing that the First Amendment and federal civil rights law require the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to allow prisoners the right to meaningful clergy access in their final moments. TDCJ’s ban on pastors praying aloud for the condemned or laying hands on them threatens centuries-old religious rituals that long predate the United States and continue to be practiced in prisons around the country.

Becket argues that both audible clergy prayer and clergy touch stand at the center of the “historical practices and understandings” that define the Free Exercise right to clergy access for the condemned. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment requires TDCJ to prove that it has a really important reason to enforce these restrictions and can accomplish its goals no other way—which it cannot do.

John Henry Ramirez

For some reason, Texas wants to turn back the clock hundreds of years on the rights of clergy to minister to the condemned,” said Eric Rassbach, VP & senior counsel at Becket. “If King George III could do it back then, and Alabama can do it today, Texas ought to be able to figure it out. The Supreme Court should tell Texas to allow Ramirez’s pastor to minister to him in the death chamber, including by praying aloud and laying hands on him. Human dignity and simple common sense demand no less.”

Prior to 2019, Texas’ policy allowed Christian and Muslim chaplains into the death chamber. In a 2019 case, Patrick Murphy asked the TDCJ to allow his Buddhist priest into the execution chamber with him and to chant his prayers with him as he died. TDCJ denied Murphy this right, but after Becket filed a brief, the Supreme Court halted the execution. TDCJ responded to Murphy’s “equal treatment” claim by blocking spiritual advisors of all faiths from the execution chamber. After another Supreme Court ruling in favor of a prisoner supported by Becket, TDCJ’s policy now allows chaplains to be in the execution chamber, but still prohibits any spoken prayer or slight contact with the inmate. This runs contrary to centuries of religious practice, and even TDCJ’s own practices up until 2019.

Ramirez’s request is not unusual. Clergy of choice have been allowed in most executions performed over the history of the United States, and in the lethal injection context, clergy members have offered touch and audible prayer in the final moments for decades.

“Our country allowed clergy to minister to Revolutionary War traitors and Nazi war criminals at the gallows. We have always given condemned prisoners the chance to get right with God not because of who they are, but because of who we are,” said Rassbach.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in Ramirez v. Collier on November 1.

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Joseph Menslage

As the President and Publisher of Katy and Fort Bend Christian Magazines, Joe Menslage is committed to covering social and political news from a Christian worldview. He founded Katy Christian Magazine in 2005, which swept the greater Houston and Katy areas like a storm. That’s when Joe realized the urgent need for publications willing to give voices to the voiceless, without political correctness or censorship. Joe Menslage founded sister-publication Fort Bend Christian Magazine in 2014. Prior to creating Katy Christian Magazine, Joe Menslage led a colorful life. He was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, spent a great deal of his childhood in Colorado, and lived in a couple of other states before he moved to Houston in 1981. Joe was God-gifted with an entrepreneurial mind, and self-started other business ventures before he found his calling. In Joe’s words, our innate talents are given by the Lord, and are meant to be used to serve the Lord. Aside from being a President and Publisher, Joe Menslage is also the co-founder of Katy Christian Chamber of Commerce, where Christians can network, build business connections, listen to passionate speakers, and enjoy monthly breakfasts and lunches. Joe Menslage also hosts a weekly political satire YouTube channel. Joe Menslage has four children. Outside of work, he enjoys hiking, watching zombie movies and K dramas, ax-throwing and Krav Maga.