The Supreme Court issued a rare stay of execution on Wednesday night, blocking Texas from executing convicted murderer John Henry Ramirez until the justices can hear his argument he has a constitutional right to have his pastor lay hands on him and pray out loud as he is put to death. Texas had denied his request and lower courts had sided with Texas. The Supreme Court said it will hear oral arguments in the case in October or November.
This is the third time in recent years that the Supreme Court has halted a Texas execution over questions of spiritual advisers in the death chamber.
Before 2019, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice allowed its staff chaplains, who were all Christian or Muslim, to lay hands on an inmate's leg during executions. When the TDCJ denied a Buddhist death row inmate's request to have his spiritual adviser be president during his 2019 execution, the Supreme Court said no, citing religious discrimination. Texas responded by barring all chaplains or all faiths from the death chamber, prompting the Supreme Court to stay another execution in June 2020.
The TDCJ amended its policy again in April, saying vetted outside spiritual advisers can be present in the death chamber but not touch the inmate or pray out loud, citing security concerns and decorum. Ramirez's lawyer argued in court filings that the ban on vocal prayers amounted to a "spiritual 'gag order'" and more generally accused Texas of wanting "the execution chamber to be a godless vacuum" in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
Ramirez, 37, was convicted of fatally stabbing a convenience store worker, Pablo Castro, in 2004 as part of a string of robberies for drug money. Texas has already put two people to death this year, the only state that has executed anyone in 2021, and the federal government carried out three executions in January, before former President Donald Trump left office. "The only execution stays the Supreme Court has granted in recent years have been related to issues of religious practice or discrimination," The Associated Press reports.