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In Emergency Petition, Baptist on Death Row in Texas Asks SCOTUS to Let Pastor ‘Lay Hands Upon Him’ at Moment of Execution

John Henry Ramirez pictured sitting in the visitation room in prison, behind Plexiglas

John Henry Ramirez pictured sitting in the visitation room in prison, behind Plexiglas.

On the eve of his scheduled execution, death row inmate John Henry Ramirez, 37, filed an emergency request with the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday demanding that the Lone Star State allow him a sendoff conforming to his religious beliefs.

As Law&Crime previously reported, the man sentenced to death wants his spiritual advisor, Pastor Dana Moore, to “lay hands upon him at the time of his death” in line with his devout Baptist beliefs.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) previously allowed approved chaplains inside the execution chamber “to guide persons being executed into the afterlife according to their religious beliefs,” Ramirez’s August lawsuit notes, insisting that the request is “a long-held and practiced tradition in Christianity in general and in the Protestant belief system Mr. Ramirez adheres to.” The TDCJ stopped allowing such visits in April 2019 and denied Ramirez’s recent request.

The lawsuit claims the Lone Star State’s denial of Ramirez’s preferred religious accommodation amounts to an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause. Additionally, the lawsuit alleges a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which generally prohibits the government from burdening incarcerated individuals’ “religious exercise” unless such a burden furthers “a compelling governmental interest.”

Two federal courts denied the request to allow Moore in, prompting Tuesday’s eleventh hour bid for “a stay of execution pending consideration and disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari.”

The filing accuses prison administrators and other authorities of intentionally dragging out the process and of taking dishonest positions in order to violate the condemned man’s rights, noting that Ramirez’s original “spiritual advisor” lawsuit was filed in August 2020.

“Ramirez has been trying to push fast-forward while the State is trying to slow things down,” the filing argues. “Counsel for the [Texas] Attorney General’s Office contacted Ramirez’s counsel when the ‘new’ section 1983 case was filed August 10, 2021. Yet the Attorney General’s Office has adamantly refused to file an answer- or accept service- in the month since.”

The filing seeks to paint the TDCJ as an agency intent on frustrating every effort made by Ramirez to obtain a favorable court ruling.

“In just the past two years, the TDCJ has prevaricated between four (4) different policies concerning spiritual advisors in the execution chamber; its conceded goal has been to find whatever version it believes would clear [the Supreme] Court’s irreducible minimum under the First Amendment and RLUIP,” the emergency request reads. “The most recent version was promulgated in April 2021- months after the court signed Ramirez’s death warrant.”

The emergency request continues on in harsh terms:

The first problem is that under the TDCJ’s most recent policy, Pastor Moore not lay hands on Ramirez during his death. The second problem is that Pastor Moore may not pray, speak, read Scripture, move his lips, or do anything at all. In other words, Pastor Moore is compelled to stand in his little corner of the room like a potted plant even though his notarized affidavit explains that laying his hands on a dying body and vocalized prayers during the transformation from life to death- are intertwined with the ministrations he seeks to give Ramirez as part of their jointly subscribed system of faith.

Ramirez’s attorney Seth Kretzer previously told Law&Crime that the behavior of Texas officials in the Ramirez case is “an unholy Trinity of constitutional violations.”

“Eventually,” the attorney said, “the State of Texas will have to explain why the prison doctor must be able touch Ramirez’s arm — to determine when his pulse stops — but Pastor Moore will not be allowed to touch Ramirez’s other arm.”

The Tuesday request goes on to allege that part of Texas’s campaign against Ramirez includes efforts to effectively entrap Moore during the administration of the death-bringing drug while rendering the legal issues raised by the lawsuit moot.

Noting that Moore signed a “penalty-backed pledge that he will obey all rules,” the filing says “Moore had no problem signing such a pledge, and he did so.” But Ramirez argues that the state’s pledge “purports to stipulate to criminal liability under two inapposite statutes that protect the confidentiality of members of the execution team who administer the poison.” Additionally, after Moore provided a copy of the pledge to Ramirez’s attorney, Texas declared the pastor in violation “and is at this very moment threatening to eject Moore from the execution chamber,” the emergency request says.

“This is the paradigmatic example of irreparable injury — by the time Ramirez would be able to challenge Pastor Moore’s on-the-spot exclusion during Ramirez’s execution, he will be dead and the claim moot,” the filing predicts. “What the [prison officials] really seek is to hold a Sword of Damocles over Pastor Moore during this execution. If he even breathes through his mouth, the Warden may declare that Pastor Moore is trying to utter prohibited words of prayer. Pastor Moore will be ejected from the execution chamber by guards and referred for prosecution under the statutes cited in the pre-prepared form. Ramirez will be executed without the spiritual advisor guaranteed to him under the Constitution and RLUIPA.”

Ramirez’s execution is scheduled for Wednesday.

[image via screengrab/BBC]

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