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Pastor Isn’t Safety Risk, Ex-Corrections Officials Tell Justices

Sept. 27, 2021, 10:05 PM

Barring spiritual advisors from praying aloud or laying hands on prisoners during executions isn’t necessary for security, a group of advisors and ex-prison officials told the Supreme Court ahead of oral argument.

That means Texas’ attempt to ban those religious activities isn’t the least restrictive way to achieve the state’s security interest as required by federal law, the group said in an amicus brief, filed Monday by veteran high court lawyer Lisa Blatt of Williams & Connolly.

The advisors and ex-officials lodged the brief in support of John Ramirez, who received an execution stay from the justices earlier this month. In a rare move, the court also set his case for fuller briefing followed by argument on Nov. 1.

The justices set the case for argument after fielding a series of similar cases in emergency filings in recent years, leaving the broader religion-at-execution issue unresolved.

“Barring spiritual advisors from praying audibly and physically touching prisoners during an execution denies those about to die their right to faith-based solace and religious practice when it matters most,” said the filing by Blatt and other lawyers from Williams & Connolly and the ACLU.

Signing onto the brief that questions Texas officials’ safety argument are former corrections officials from Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Washington state who witnessed or oversaw more than 50 executions in their careers.

Among the spiritual advisors on the brief are ones who prayed aloud without incident in the death chamber for people executed by the Trump administration.

Ramirez was sentenced to death for the 2004 Corpus Christi killing of Pablo Castro.

Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book-turned-film “Dead Man Walking,” also joined the brief. The filing recounts the execution of Joseph O’Dell in Virginia in 1997, which Prejean witnessed. Just before the execution, she stood near him with her hand on his shoulder and prayed aloud, which, the brief said, “conveyed to him the message that he still retained his dignity as a child of God as he passed over into death.”

The case is Ramirez v. Collier, U.S., No. 21-5592.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com; Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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