Justia Summary

Ramirez was sentenced to death for a 2004 murder. Texas informed Ramirez of his September 2021 execution date. Ramirez requested that his pastor be present in the execution chamber. Texas amended its protocol to allow a prisoner’s spiritual advisor to enter the execution chamber. Ramirez then asked that his pastor be permitted to “lay hands” on him and “pray over” him during his execution. Texas denied Ramirez’s request without reference to its execution protocol despite a history of allowing prison chaplains to engage in such activities. The district court and Fifth Circuit declined to grant injunctive relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. 2000cc–1(a).

The Supreme Court stayed Ramirez’s execution, then reversed. Ramirez is likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims because Texas’s restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the state’s compelling interests. Ramirez’s requests are “sincerely based on a religious belief.” The laying on of hands and prayer are traditional forms of religious exercise; Ramirez’s pastor confirmed that they are a significant part of their faith tradition.

The Court rejected arguments about security and possible trauma to the victim’s family; that absolute silence is necessary to monitor the inmate; and that if spiritual advisors were allowed to pray aloud, the opportunity “could be exploited to make a statement to the witnesses or officials.” Prison officials have less restrictive ways to handle any concerns. Ramirez is likely to suffer irreparable harm absent injunctive relief. The balance of equities and public interest tilt in Ramirez’s favor because it is possible to accommodate Ramirez’s sincere religious beliefs without delaying or impeding his execution. There was no evidence that Ramirez engaged in litigation misconduct that should preclude equitable relief.