Does religious freedom apply in the execution chamber?


In recent years, the Supreme Court has become increasingly paranoid about religious discrimination. Republican-appointed judges see “animosity towards religion” on every street corner (unless he emanates from Donald Trump). They were keen to protect believers, especially conservative Christians, from the slightest smell of offense. And they have been eager to grant exemptions to religious complainants who insist complying with the law would violate their beliefs. At no time in the court’s recent religious freedom cases have these judges even raised the possibility that these plaintiffs have feigned or exaggerated their beliefs.

Till Tuesday. During disputes in Ramirez vs. Collier, several conservative judges have expressed serious skepticism about the sincerity of a religious complainant’s faith. The difference between Ramírez and all past cases? John Henry Ramirez is on death row, and his request for a Baptist pastor in death chamber delayed his execution date. It turns out that these judges to do thinks courts can assess the authenticity of religious objections … but only when the objector is about to be killed by the state.

The facts of Ramírez are heavily contested, but the pattern is this: In 2008, a Texas jury sentenced Ramirez to death for murder. Behind bars, he received advice from Dana Moore, pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi. Moore regularly travels over 300 miles to get to Ramirez behind a plexiglass window. Ramirez, a devout Baptist, would like Moore to accompany him to the execution chamber when he is put to death by lethal injection. Specifically, he wants permission for his pastor to pray by his side and lay hands on him when his heart stops.

Texas refuses to grant this accommodation. State lawyers alleged that the active presence of the pastor would jeopardize the “safety” of all involved. (They did not address the irony of worrying about “safety” in a proceeding to kill someone.) So Moore filed a complaint alleging a violation of his constitutional right to exercise as well. as a violation of the religious use of land and institutionalized people. Law of 2000. This federal law, known as the RLUIPA, prohibits the government from imposing a “substantial burden” on the religious exercise of incarcerated persons unless it is “the least restrictive means” to promote a “compelling government interest”.

Judges have grappled with the issue of religious freedom for death row inmates for several years in a series of conflicting shadow orders that have failed to establish a clear rule. They seemed to take Ramírez to set a standard that would stem the tide of last-minute requests to suspend an execution on grounds of religious freedom. As soon as the arguments began, however, it became clear that Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Sam Alito had a different goal in mind: to completely undermine Ramirez’s claim by proving he was faking a religious objection to delay his execution. . Their ostensible proof is the fact that Ramirez has raised multiple objections to different restrictions whenever the state has scheduled his execution. Texas encouraged this story in his memory. But the state’s claims are objectively false: the full save reveals that the state itself Many times changed the rules to limit the pastor’s access to the death chamber and hid these shifting directives from Ramirez until just before his execution.

Ignoring these facts, Thomas appeared to buy into the highly suspicious version of events in Texas. He asked Seth Kretzer, Ramirez’s attorney: “If we believe that Mr. Ramirez has amended his request several times and filed last-minute complaints, and if we assume that this is any indication of playing with the system, what should we do with that in regards to assessing the sincerity of one’s beliefs? “

Kretzer pointed Thomas at Ramirez’s multiple handwritten calls “repeatedly asking the same”, but Thomas looked dubious. “Can the repeated lodging of complaints, especially at the last minute, not only be considered as proof of the system’s play but also of the sincerity of religious beliefs? ” He asked. Kretzer replied, “I can only speak as Mr. Ramirez’s lawyer. I don’t play games. There is no delaying tactic in this case.

That wasn’t good enough for Alito, who grumbled Kretzer that “what you’ve been saying so far suggests to me that we can expect an endless stream of variation.” As if to find out about the many ways people could ‘play with the system’ to delay their executions, Alito asked, ‘What will happen when the next prisoner says I have a religious belief that [my faith adviser] must touch my knee? Should he hold my hand? Should he put his hand on my heart? Should he be able to put his hand on my head? We’re going to have to go through all of human anatomy with a series of cases.

Kavanaugh also picked up on Thomas’ thread. “People move the goalposts on their demands in order to delay executions,” he lectured Kretzer. “At least that’s the state’s concern. Later, Kavanaugh added, “This is a huge potential area for future litigation in many areas – the sincerity of religious claims. How to challenge them? Some things that people have talked about are the incentives a person might have to be insincere, behavioral inconsistencies… the religious tradition of the practice. What do we look for to verify sincerity? Because it’s a very awkward thing for a judge to say, “I want to verify the sincerity of your claim. But our case law says we have to.

What case law, exactly, is Kavanaugh talking about? Because in recent history the Supreme Court has categorically refused to apply any scrutiny to religious objections. When Hobby Lobby claimed that allowing its employees to access IUDs and morning-after pills through their health insurance violated the company’s religious beliefs, SCOTUS did not question his sincerity. The conservative majority has even taken the Hobby Lobby position that these forms of contraception cause abortions, which is empirically false. When a pharmacy claimed the sale of Plan B violated its religious beliefs based on the same misunderstanding, conservative judges did not hesitate. When religious employers said that fill out a form exempting them from the contraceptive mandate would undermine their faith, SCOTUS nod. When a baker said giving a wedding cake to a same-sex couple undermined their faith, these judges did not ask why, exactly, the sale of baked goods violated the principles of his creed. When a Catholic charity claimed that simply certifying that LGBTQ people were suitable foster parents was at odds with church principles, not a single justice probed his sincerity. And when health workers protested COVID vaccine on religious grounds, three conservative judges eagerly kissed the validity of their objections.

The hypocrisy runs deeper. In Pastry masterpiece vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that a state official had violated the free exercise clause by pronouncing a trivial comment criticize the use of religion to justify discrimination. While casual criticism of someone’s faith can violate the Constitution, so too can a thorough investigation of someone’s religious beliefs. Indeed, according to the standard established in Pastry masterpiece, Thomas and Kavanaugh’s statements on Tuesday could be an unconstitutional “animus” to Ramirez’s faith. The same is true of Texas’ efforts to disprove Ramirez’s beliefs. To use the language of Pastry masterpiece, judges and state attorneys expressed “unacceptable hostility” to Ramirez’s religious-based objections, failing to pay them the “neutral and respectful consideration” demanded by the First Amendment. They called these objections “insubstantial and even insincere”, betraying their “solemn responsibility for a fair and neutral application” of the law.

Of course, Supreme Court justices do not follow the same rules they impose on the rest of the country. Thomas, Kavanaugh, and Alito probably see no inconsistency in their approach to religion: they view death row inmates as inherently untrustworthy, desperate to prolong their doomed lives with endless litigation. They are not the law kind of religious objectors, so they don’t get the deference given to, say, a Christian arts and crafts store.

What is not clear is whether other Conservative judges will accept this hypocrisy. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked in-depth questions that didn’t make their hands tilt, while Justice Neil Gorsuch said nothing at all. The Liberals have always supported religious freedom in the Death Chamber, and Barrett has sided with them in the past. Whether there will be five votes for a strong rule protecting Ramirez – and all who will come after him – remains unclear. What is certain after Tuesday is that some judges’ commitment to religious freedom ends when religion may briefly stop the mechanism of death.


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