March 24, 2022

Supreme Court Decides Ramirez v. Collier

On March 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Ramirez v. Collier, No. 21-5592, reversing the Fifth Circuit, and holding that because Texas’ restrictions on religious touch and audible prayer in the execution chamber burden religious exercise and are not the least restrictive means of furthering the state’s compelling interests, Mr. Ramirez was likely to succeed on his RLUIPA claims, and was entitled to injunctive relief permitting his religious exercise.

Texas rescheduled John Ramirez’s execution for September 8, 2021. Mr. Ramirez filed a grievance requesting that his pastor be permitted to lay hands on him and pray over him while the state executed him. His request was denied, and he appealed within the prison system. Less than a month prior to his execution date, and with his grievance appeal still pending, he filed suit seeking relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the First Amendment. He argued Texas’ refusal to permit his pastor to lay hands on him and audibly pray in the execution chamber substantially burdened his free exercise of religion. He sought an injunction requiring Texas to accommodate his religious expression, as well as a stay of execution while the District Court considered his claims. The District Court denied his request and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court granted the stay, certiorari, and argument on an expedited basis.

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court reversed. It first held that Mr. Ramirez properly exhausted his administrative remedies, rejecting Texas’ argument that he had failed to do so because he did not specifically enumerate a request for audible prayer. The Court then examined his RLUIPA claims, holding that Texas’ policy of prohibiting religious touch and audible prayer substantially burdened his exercise of religion, did not further a compelling government interest, and was not the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

The Court recognized Texas has an interest in ensuring the secure, undisrupted, solemn, and decorous execution of inmates. However, it rejected Texas’ claims that a ban on religious touch and audible prayer were the least restrictive means of furthering that interest, concluding other restrictions like limiting the volume of any prayer, permitting touch far from any IV location, or imposing penalties on pastors who violate policies would be just as effective and impose a lesser burden. Accordingly, the Court concluded that Mr. Ramirez was likely to prevail on his RLUIPA claim.

The Court then assessed whether Mr. Ramirez was entitled to an injunction and concluded he was. The Court noted the harm he faced was spiritual, rather than pecuniary, and credited the narrow scope of the injunction he sought — an order requiring Texas to permit religious touch and audible prayer during his execution. The Court held that if Texas were to reschedule Mr. Ramirez’s execution and decline to permit religious touch or audible prayer, the District Court should grant appropriate preliminary relief.

Chief Justice Roberts authored the opinion for the court. Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kavanaugh filed concurring opinions. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.

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