People sentenced to death are likely entitled to have a pastor pray with them and lay hands on them during their execution, under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled March 24 in Ramirez v. Collier.
John Ramirez was sentenced to death in Texas.
He sought a preliminary injunction to require prison officials to allow him to have a pastor pray with him and lay hands on him during his execution.  He claimed RLUIPA required this religious accommodation.
The district court and Fifth Circuit denied relief.
The Supreme Court reversed, in an 8-1 opinion.
Ramirez is entitled to a preliminary injunction because he is likely to succeed on the merits, and will suffer irreparable harm if injunctive relief is not granted, the Court said.
RLUIPA prohibits prison officials from imposing a “substantial burden” on religious exercise unless the government can show the burden furthers a compelling governmental interest, and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest, the Court said.
“Here, the government has not shown that it is likely to carry that burden,” the Court said.
Texas officials claimed that “absolute silence” is necessary during an execution to allow them to monitor the inmate’s condition.  But both the federal government and at least one State allow audible prayer, indicating it is feasible, the Court said.
“What’s more, there appear to be less restrictive ways to handle any concerns,” the Court said.  “Prison officials could impose reasonable restrictions on audible prayer … such as limiting the volume of any prayer” or “requiring silence during critical points,” the Court said.
Texas officials also claimed the ban was necessary for prison security.  But letting a pastor stand near a person and touch them does not “meaningfully” increase security risks, the Court said.
Texas could require the pastor undergo training or take “other precautions” to ensure security, the Court said.
“We hold that Ramirez is likely to prevail on the merits of his RLUIPA claims, and that the other preliminary injunction factors justify relief,” the Court concluded.
Justice Thomas dissented.