The NCSL Blog

16

By Lisa Soronen

In Ramirez v. Collier the U.S. Supreme Court may decide whether Texas prison officials violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by disallowing John Henry Ramirez’s spiritual advisor to vocalize prayers and lay his hands on Ramirez as Ramirez is executed by lethal injection. The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in this case on Nov. 1.   

US Supreme CourtThe 5th Circuit ruled against Ramirez. Chief Judge Priscilla Owen noted that the Federal Bureau of Prisons would not allow Ramirez’s requests. Judge Patrick Higginbotham pointed out that among other states using lethal injection “we find a high universal reluctance to allow individuals access to the execution chamber beyond the medical [and security] team.”

Judge James Dennis dissented. He stated RLUIPA grants “expansive protection for religious liberty,” offering inmates “greater protection” than the Supreme Court’s First Amendment precedents. He concluded Ramirez “made a strong showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits” of his RLUIPA claim.

RLUIPA states that the government shall not “impose a substantial burden” on an inmate’s “religious exercise” unless the government shows that imposing such a burden can withstand strict scrutiny, meaning the policy “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

Turning to recent Supreme Court “shadow-docket” decisions (decided on an emergency basis without full briefing, oral argument or a complete written opinion), Dennis concluded that Ramirez’s religious exercise was substantially burdened.

Gutierrez v. Saenz (2020) and Dunn v. Smith (2021), in Texas and Alabama, respectively, disallowed a spiritual advisor or minister to be present during an execution. In Gutierrez, the Supreme Court directed the district court to make factual findings regarding “whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution.” In Smith, the Supreme Court allowed an order to stay in effect preventing Smith’s execution from taking place without a minister present.

Dennis further opined that “no doubt . . . security of an execution is a ‘compelling governmental interest.’” But, he stated, Texas officials were unable to meet the “demanding and specific burden” that Texas’s policy of no vocalizing or laying hands is the “least restrictive means” available to achieve security.

According to Dennis: “[T]he state has largely offered general concerns about security.” “It is not enough, as Chief Judge Owen and Judge Higginbotham suggest, for the state to argue that its policy is consistent with the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ policy. Under RLUIPA and pertinent Supreme Court precedent, the state needs to show why its policy disallowing Pastor (Dana) Moore from uttering any audible prayer or engaging in any touching, as applied specifically to Ramirez, is the least restrictive means of achieving its compelling interest.”

Ramirez asked the Supreme Court to decide whether its policy violates the First Amendment’s Free Exercise of Religion Clause as well as RLUIPA. The court asked the parties to only brief the RLUIPA issue.

Likewise, the court has directed the parties to brief whether Ramirez has exhausted remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. If he hasn’t, the court won’t decide the merits of his case. Finally, the court has told the parties “to address the type of equitable relief [Ramirez] is seeking, the appropriate standard for this relief, and whether that standard has been met here.” The State and Local Center is not participating in this case.

Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.