US Supreme Court upholds religious rights of Death Row inmates
Clarence Thomas (Saul Loeb:AFP)

The US Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the religious rights of Death Row inmates, ruling in favor of a convicted murderer who had asked that his pastor be allowed to touch him and pray aloud while he is executed.

In an 8-1 decision, the nation's highest court dismissed a legal effort by the Texas prison authorities to prohibit the practice.

Justice Clarence Thomas, a staunch conservative, was the lone dissenting vote.

John Ramirez, 37, was scheduled to die by lethal injection in a Texas prison on September 8 for killing a convenience store clerk, a father of nine, during a 2004 robbery that netted $1.25.

Ramirez sought to halt the execution because the Texas authorities would not allow his Baptist pastor, Dana Moore, to have physical contact with him as he died or to pray out loud in the death chamber.

The Texas authorities allow a spiritual advisor to be in the room during an execution, but they must be quiet and are not allowed to touch a prisoner for security reasons.

The Supreme Court issued a last-minute stay of execution and agreed to hear his case.

Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said there was "ample evidence that Ramirez's beliefs are sincere" and that the laying on of hands and praying were "traditional forms of religious exercise."

He said the authorities had failed to show a "compelling governmental interest" in prohibiting the practice and there was a long American tradition of allowing spiritual advisors to pray with the condemned.

"When, for example, the Federal Government executed four members of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the prisoners were accompanied by clergy of various denominations," he said.

"And in the aftermath of World War II, the United States Army even permitted Nazi war criminals facing execution to be accompanied by a chaplain, who 'spoke' prayers on the gallows in the moments before death."

Fear of disruptions unmerited

Roberts said the Texas prohibition was relatively recent.

"Texas itself appears to have long allowed prison chaplains to pray with inmates in the execution chamber, deciding to prohibit such prayer only in the last several years," he said.

"We agree that the government has a compelling interest in preventing disruptions of any sort and maintaining solemnity and decorum in the execution chamber," the chief justice said.

"But there is no indication in the record that Pastor Moore would cause the sorts of disruptions that respondents fear."

He said the prison authorities could, for example, "allow touch on a part of the body away from IV lines, such as a prisoner's lower leg."

In his dissent, Thomas, one of the six conservative justices on the court, accused Ramirez of "bringing abusive litigation to delay his execution" and engaging in "gamesmanship."

The Supreme Court rarely intervenes to halt executions, but it has done so in recent cases where prisoners have argued they are being denied access to spiritual advisors.

In 2018, it rejected the request of a stay of execution for a Muslim prisoner who asked for an imam to be by his side as he was put to death.

A few weeks later, following a public outcry, a stay was granted to an inmate who wanted a Buddhist spiritual advisor to accompany him to the execution chamber.

Several states have banned all spiritual advisors from the death chamber, but the court ruled last year that states could not bar them entirely.