John Henry Ramirez is scheduled to be executed in the state of Texas. He’s not fighting the execution, but he’s asking the state to allow a spiritual leader to be by his side and providing comfort when he’s killed.
As far as final requests go, that one seems harmless. And yet Texas won’t allow it. A legal battle ensued and ended up in front of the the Supreme Court earlier this week. For a Court that’s routinely voted on the side of religious freedom, this case should have been a simple one. But the conservative justices raised plenty of questions regarding the sincerity of Ramirez’s faith… something that never seemed to matter when they were arguing over COVID restrictions.
As Vox explained, Texas is letting Ramirez’s pastor to be in the execution chamber… but the pastor can’t audibly pray or lay his hands on Ramirez: Texas won’t allow “that counselor to provide any actual counsel.” That’s what this case is about.
The New York Times explained the concerns raised by the conservative justices:
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked about requests to have more than one spiritual adviser in the execution chamber and about last-minute conversions to new faiths. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh asked about a request for “bread and wine in the execution room.” Justice Alito worried that judges would be required “to go through the whole human anatomy” to decide where touching was permitted.
Alito’s concerns were shared by Roberts, Thomas, and Kavanaugh. Thomas fretted about inmates “gaming the system” by claiming to adhere to religious beliefs that they do not actually hold. Kavanaugh expressed similar concerns that an inmate might try to “move the goalposts” in future cases.
In other words, they were worried about the slippery slope of letting a pastor provide meaningful spiritual counsel. (If we allow this, then don’t we have to allow that?) But those arguments were rightly criticized because no one is asking a pastor to “go through the whole human anatomy” before execution. The request in this case is a modest one — but the conservative justices seemed all too eager to create a hurdle that never seemed to exist for the Christian groups that demanded special treatment over the past few years. I guess their “pro-life” inclinations only go so far.
As The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer noted,
I’ve heard a lot of slippery-slope arguments in my time, and I confess that the possibility that the condemned might experience a brief moment of comfort before death has to be among the least frightening I’ve ever encountered.
If these justices actually cared about “sincerity,” perhaps they should be asking questions about why “pro-life” officials are so eager to execute anyone. When a death row inmate wants spiritual solace in his final moments, the Court acts like it’s a burden on them.
It’s telling that a Court that regularly votes on the side of religious freedom appears to have decided there are limits to those requests because the person at the center of the story is a criminal. But even criminals have rights.
Someone on the verge of death, regardless of the situation, ought to have a simple religious request honored. And yet, even if this ends up being a 5-4 decision in favor of Ramirez, think about what that says about four justices on the Court.