Death Watch: Laying on Hands, Praying Out Loud

Another death row inmate sues Texas for preventing his free exercise of religion

John Henry Ramirez renewed his faith in Christ five years ago, when Pastor Dana Moore and others from Corpus Christi's Second Baptist Church began making the 300-mile trip to visit him on Texas' death row at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit in Polk County, north of Houston.

Now, as the state prepares to execute the 37-year old ex-Marine for the 2004 stabbing death of convenience store clerk Pablo Castro, Ramirez is asking prison officials to let Moore be present at his Sept. 8 execution and lay hands on him and pray out loud as he dies from a lethal injection. Offic­ials have denied the request, however, making Ramirez the most recent inmate on death row to sue Texas for preventing his free exercise of religion, even at the hour of his death.

Texas officials – most of whom likely identify as Christian – readmitted spiritual advisers not out of a sense of humanity or piety, but because they wanted to resume the methodical violation of a central tenet of their faith.

Ramirez's attorney Seth Kretzer is suing several leaders of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, writing in an August 10 court filing that they're committing "an unholy Trini­ty of constitutional violations" in denying Ramirez's request: "1) vocal prayer by a spiritual minister is prohibited as a member of his Church and his flock is dying; 2) a pastor may not read Scripture from the Bible aloud to his dying parishioner; and 3) Ramirez will not be able to hear any of the spiritual words of comfort by his Church and minister, or the Word of God, or the Holy Scriptures, all banned by the Defendants."

Ramirez's challenge comes as spiritual advisers' access to Texas' death chamber has barely resumed following TDCJ's reversal this April of a two-year ban. In March 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of Patrick Murphy, who had requested the presence of a Buddhist spiritual adviser during his execution. At the time, TDCJ policy allowed only its own chaplains to be present; although these state employees had attended some 560 executions dating back to the early 1980s, only a handful were available, and all but one were Christian. When TDCJ denied Murphy's request, his lawyers challenged the infringement of his First Amendment right of religious freedom, and SCOTUS agreed, issuing a Solomonic decree: Either advisors from all faiths would be allowed to comfort those being killed, or none would. Five days later, TDCJ barred spiritual advisers of any kind from the execution chamber, but this abrupt change only spurred more appeals from inmates on religious freedom grounds.

As TDCJ prepared to resume executions this spring after nearly a yearlong pause due to COVID-19, it opted to allow spiritual advisers chosen by prisoners and vetted by the state to enter the chamber. Still, observers noted the glaring irony: Texas officials – most of whom likely identify as Christian – readmitted spiritual advisers not out of a sense of humanity or piety, but because they wanted to resume the methodical violation of a central tenet of their faith.

The new policy has not yet been disseminated to the public, but Kretzer told the Chronicle he's received a letter from the Office of the Attorney General spelling out what Moore can and cannot do at Ramirez's execution. He "will not be allowed to speak in any way," Kretzer said. "He cannot pray aloud. He cannot sing a prayer. He cannot do anything in this room except basically stand in a corner and breathe."

Because TDCJ deems it a security risk, Moore will not be allowed to approach Ramir­ez and place his hands on him as he dies. But touching is crucial to Moore's ministry. "When I pray with people, I put a hand on them," he told Christianity Today in a recent interview. "When I go to the hospital, I hold the person's hand. It's what we do. ... And that's what John wants me to be able to do. To have me touch him. To have that support. To have that type of blessing."

Kretzer said whichever party loses the lawsuit will immediately appeal, so TDCJ's new protocol will inevitably be examined by higher courts. If they reject his arguments, Ramirez, who's been on death row since 2009, will be executed on Sept. 8, becoming the third Texan executed by the state so far this year.

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