Religious Liberty and the Case of John Ramirez

In 2008, John Ramirez was convicted of capital murder after killing Pablo Castro in Corpus Christi, Texas in 2004. Ramirez has spent over ten years in prison awaiting his imminent execution. During this time, Ramirez apparently had some sort of conversion and became a member of the Baptist faith. On the day of his scheduled execution, Ramirez made a request that his pastor be in the chamber, laying hands on him and praying as he died. The Supreme Court, which has been back and forth on this matter over the past 3 years, has delayed his lethal injection and now discuss this matter as an issue of religious liberty.

John Morales welcomed Andrea Picciotti-Bayer onto Morning Air to discuss the case, its surrounding circumstances, and the implications for religious liberty.

Picciotti-Bayer began by discussing the case being made against Ramirez’s request by the state of Texas. Their medical and security teams have expressed concerns about having another body in the chamber, especially one who might be touching the convict, praying aloud, or obstructing their view to the prisoner. For everybody’s sake, they want to avoid a botched execution at all costs. Botched lethal injections can result in excruciating pain, multiple injections, and exceptionally prolonged deaths.

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However, convicts are still granted religious liberty rights and Ramirez challenged the state’s concerns, stating that it was his right to have his chaplain present as he died. He believes that his case is covered under the First Amendment as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that protects religious organizations from discrimination. “It’s kind of a companion law, very similar to what we know as RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and that’s the law that protects groups like The Little Sisters of the Poor from having to include contraceptives in their employee health plans,” said Picciotti-Bayer.

While Ramirez’s case holds water, that doesn’t mean the state of Texas will permit this special request. According to Picciotti-Bayer, if the government has a legitimate reason to deny or limit this request, they are allowed to do so as long as they do so in the least restrictive way. The Supreme Court has been battling itself over whether to defer to the state’s determination about safety and accuracy or to honor the religious right of John Ramirez.

Another reason that the Supreme Court might rule against Ramirez’s request is that they would like to finally set a permanent precedent for prisoners. Ramirez submitted his request to have his chaplain present on the day that he was scheduled to die. The state is required to honor all of these requests, so his execution has been delayed (for the third time). The court is concerned about receiving a stream of requests like this that will not only be last-minute but will delay executions and most likely be illegitimate religious claims.

While the Catholic Church’s teaching states that “the death penalty is inadmissible”, 27 states in the U.S. currently authorize capital punishment. Because of this, the Church is called to operate within the parameters of the law and priests are often in the middle of these situations with inmates. They are called upon to hear confessions, provide Last Rites, and give Viaticum to prisoners before their natural deaths or executions. “…it does reinforce the importance of this, kind of, coming to grips with the end of life and that you have to answer to God and be ready for it, and that the Church, as Church, is ready to walk with people as they come to the end of their life on earth,” said Picciotti-Bayer. She said she is not a supporter of capital punishment, but when it is authorized or someone is sentenced, Catholics should be there to care for the person’s soul when it is about to leave their body.

John mentioned that the USCCB filed an amicus curiae brief (assistance of a third party to a case by offering insights or expertise to the court) regarding the case of John Ramirez. Picciotti-Bayer explained, “It’s saying the issues here aren’t just the religious liberty of John Ramirez but of churches as institutions, that this is part of the Church’s contribution to the Faithful, and that the Church has an autonomy to be able to be there and walk with the members of the Faith.” Just as the court would like to set a precedent for inmates, the Church would like to set a precedent for its disciples and the world: God will not abandon us, even in our final hour.

Listen to the full interview below:

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John Hanretty serves as a Digital Media Producer for Relevant Radio®. He is a graduate of the Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. Besides being passionate about writing, his hobbies include drawing and digital design. You can read more of his daily articles at relevantradio.com and on the Relevant Radio® app.