At the Hour of Our Death: Supreme Court to Consider Prisoner’s Plea for Prayer and Touch in Execution Chamber


Ramirez v.  Collier, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, et al., No. 21-5592.  Oral argument set for November 9, 2021.   


The Supreme Court will soon consider whether Petitioner Ramirez, sentenced to death for a capital crime, may prevail in his claim that the State of Texas’ has violated the Religious Land Use and Religious Persons Act by refusing Ramirez’s request that his spiritual advisor not only be present in the execution chamber but also be permitted to pray aloud and to lay hands on Ramirez during the execution.

 

RLUIPA was enacted after the Supreme Court concluded that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) could not apply to the states.  Both statutes provide protections for religious exercise that may exceed the guarantees of the First Amendment, by shifting burdens of proof and persuasion and by permitting latitude in what may be considered a religious exercise.  

 

Thus a prisoner need not establish that a requested religious accommodation refers to a normative practice in any spiritual practice adhered to by the prisoner.  The state, however, must establish not only that its practices support a compelling government interest and that the state has employed the least restrictive means in furtherance of that goal.  

 

The presence of ministers in the death chamber has been permitted in Texas, in other states, and in the federal system.  At this time, Texas’ rules and regulations appear not to preclude such a presence, but interpretive guidance, some apparently issued in response to Ramirez’ requests, rule out vocalization and laying on of hands during and following the administration of lethal injections.

 

On its face Ramirez’s request appears compelling and its denial cruel.  What possible end could be served by denying a prisoner the solace of prayer and touch at death?  Safety and security, says the state.  

 

The state, through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice  opines that past procedures permitting religious attention at execution were supported by safety protocols permitting state employees, not volunteers, to provide religious support.  Sabotage and the creation of chaos in the execution room cannot be ruled out, the state argues, as such events are not without a basis in history and the likelihood of a disruptive occurrence is enhanced  if a volunteer minister would be so close to the prisoner that the disruption of the flow of medication or to removal of needles or restraints.  

 

Moreover,  the state argues that its practices and prohibitions respect the dignity of the prisoner by permitting audio surveillance from outside the execution chamber of the administration of lethal substances and the dying process.  Audible prayer would thwart that process, making it more likely that the state could not remediate the execution timely and enhancing the chance of an agonizing death.

 

Religious advocacy groups and scholars of religious freedoms have aligned with Ramirez, particularly in service of precluding interpretations of RLUIPA that would permit accommodations only if the state were affirmatively precluding a recognized religious practice.  

 

Several states have asserted that the states must be deferred to in fashioning acceptable execution chamber protocols.  The states fear a flood tide of litigation intended only to forestall executions, all in defiance of the Prison’ Litigation Reform Act, which would hamstring the state in administering sentences, thereby undermining the criminal justice system and principles of federalism. 

 

The United States has urged the Supreme Court to remand the case for resolution, particularly for further articulation of the parties’ interests.

 

Joining in advocating for bringing to a conclusion Ramirez’ litigation are the survivors of Carlos Ramos, who died after having been stabbed twenty-nine times by the Petitioner.   Ramos’ children, now grown, ask that the Court not be unmindful that at each stage of litigation the trauma of their loss is revived.  The Ramos family asks how it is that media attention appears to cast Ramirez as heroic, where their father was denied a sacramental death.  


JustLawful note:  This comment omits consideration of the exhaustion of remedies argument that is also presented in this case.

JustLawful Comment: Leaving aside the flood tides of dilatory claims, administration of justice, and federalism questions, which are not insignificant, it is difficult to believe that the requested ministerial presence and prayer and touch practices could not be accommodated through prison protocols protecting the interests of all.   “Accommodation” by definition suggests that each party yield — by inches if not by yards — to the other.  The parties seem disinclined toward such a perspective, yet the Court may order remand in furtherance of such a result, which would likewise aid the Court in avoiding unnecessary decisions.


Case Materials:

Brief of Petitioner Ramirez September 27, 2021

Brief for Respondents October 15, 2021

Reply Brief For Petitioner October 25, 2021

Ramirez v. Collier Joint Appendix Vol. I

Amicus Submissions in Support of Petitioner Ramirez

Amicus First Liberty Institute September 27, 2021

Amicus Scholars of the PLRA and Prison Grievance Systems September 27, 2021

Amicus The United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops September 27, 2021

Amicus Religious Liberty Scholars September 27, 2021

Amicus Becket Fund for Religious Liberty September 27, 2021

Amicus Christian Legal Society, et al. September 27, 2021

Amicus Spiritual Advisors and Former Corrections Officials September 27, 2021

Amicus Former Prison Officials September 27, 2021

Amicus Alliance Defending Freedom September 27, 2021

Amicus Protect the First Foundation September 27, 2021

Amicus Submissions in Support of the Respondents

Amicus Arizona, et al. in Support of Respondents October 15, 2021

Amicus Pablo Castro’s Children October 15, 2021

Amicus Criminal Justice Legal Foundation October 15, 2021

Amicus Submissions in Support of Neither Party

Amicus the United States September 27, 2021

Amicus Freedom from Religion Foundation et al. September 27, 2021

 

 

 

 

 

Supreme Court Justices to Consider Reviewing Whether Transit Authority’s Ban on Religious Advertising on Buses Violates First Amendment

Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, et al., No. 18-1455.  Scheduled for Conference October 1, 2019.


Today marks the Supreme Court’s official ‘back to work’ day, exemplified by the characterization of the first ensemble of the justices for the term as “the long conference,” in which the accumulated and prospective business before the Court demands extensive and intensive attention.

Among the many petitions of note is the Archdiocese of Washington’s (ADW) request that the Court grant its petition for certiorari to determine whether the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (WMATA) prohibition on religious advertisements on its buses violates the First Amendment. 

The dispute between the church and state entities arose in 2017, when WMATA refused to permit publication of a “Find the Perfect Gift” advertisement intended for public viewing in anticipation of the Christmas holiday.  Although similar advertisements had been accepted and were widely seen within the WMATA ridership area, in 2015 WMATA promulgated regulations banning “Issue” messages, including political and religious views. WMATA reasoned that such messages stirred controversy and management of public concerns in reviewing complaints consumed an inordinate amount of resources. 

The Archdiocese argues that the Court’s precedent compels the conclusion that WMATA rules impermissibly suppress speech, notwithstanding the opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to the contrary.

The Archdiocese argues that WMATA’s rules cannot survive review under either the First Amendment or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  As WMATA has admitted that it permits messages with secular messages but not with religious messages, WMATA has engaged in impermissible viewpoint discrimination.

The Archdiocese disputes  the position that the exclusion of the “subject” of religion avoids constitutional offense.  All manner of commentary about Christmas is permitted except religious commentary: this is exactly what is meant by viewpoint discrimination.

Particularly where religion enjoys specific constitutional protections, the imposition of speech burdens or prohibitions is unacceptable.  Adopting the government’s view would carry with it the potential to banish religious speech from all forums, a constitutionally unacceptable result.

The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority disputes the Archdiocese’s argument, asserting that its regulation, intended to avoid controversy and its associated costs, is a reasonable viewpoint neutral subject limitation applicable to a non-public forum.  WMATA counters the church’s arguments about speech suppression with the prediction that if the regulation is struck down, then all advertisements opposing religion will be required to be accepted, to the detriment of the government’s ability to manage its transit authority and to the detriment of its ridership.  

WMATA cautions the court that adopting the Archdiocese’s position would destroy the forum analyses applied to permissible and impermissible restrictions on speech in public forums.  

WMATA argues that there is no Religious Freedom Restoration Act claim to be reviewed, as RFRA does not apply to the states, and WMATA is an inter-state project comprising of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. 

JustLawful Prognostication:  “Definitely maybe.”

The Court could grant certiorari if it determines it important to weed the thicket of controversy and misunderstanding that have attached to analyses of permissible speech limitations, including forum analyses.  There is little doubt that this is a significant issue on both speech and religious freedom points.

It is equally possible that, given that the appellate court decision in issue concerns preliminary relief and not a determination on the merits, that the Court will avoid tackling these important concepts in the absence of a more developed record.  

An eleventh hour tipping point may have emerged.  Just days before the long conference, the Archdiocese submitted a supplementary brief arguing that a recent decision by the Third Circuit striking down regulations not dissimilar from the WMATA rules creates a split in circuit decisions making more urgent the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari.

Briefs in Support and Opposition to Petition for Certiorari

2019 05 19 Petition for Writ of Certiorari

2019 07 22 WMATA Opposition to Peittion for Certiorari

2019 08 06 Reply of Archdiocese v WMATA

2019 09 26 ADW Supplemental Brief in Support of Petition for Certiorari

Amicus Submissions

2019 06 20 Amicus Brief Foundation for Moral Law

2019 06 21 Amicus Brief Christian Legal Society et al

2019 06 21 Amicus Brief of National Association of Evangelicals et al

Opinions of D.C. Circuit and U.S.D.C. D.C.

Archdiocese of Wash. v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth. & Paul J. Wiedefeld, 910 F.3d 1248(Mem) (D.C. Cir., 2018)

Archdiocese of Wash. v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 897 F.3d 314 (D.C. Cir., 2018)

Archdiocese of Wash. v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 281 F. Supp. 3d 88 (D. D.C., 2017)

Opinion of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals

Ne. Pa. Freethought Soc’y v. Cnty. of Lackawanna Transit Sys.No. 18-2743 (3rd Cir., 2019)