In a decision expanding the religious rights of condemned inmates, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Texas must grant a convicted murderer his request to have his Christian pastor lay hands on him and audibly pray during his execution, Reuters reports.
The 8-1 ruling overturned a lower court's opinion against John Henry Ramirez, who appealed the state's rejection of his request for pastoral touch and prayer while he dies from lethal injection. Ramirez was sentenced to death for a fatal 2004 stabbing outside a convenience store.
Chief Justice John Roberts said denying Ramirez's requests would likely violate a federal law protecting the religious rights of prisoners. He wrote that "it is possible to accommodate Ramirez's sincere religious beliefs without delaying or impeding his execution."
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying the inmate had "manufactured more than a decade of delay to evade the capital sentence lawfully imposed by the state of Texas," adding that, "This court now affords yet another chance for him to delay his execution.
After Ramirez sued Texas last August, lower courts rejected his requests and declined to block his execution. The Supreme Court then put his scheduled execution on hold.
Texas defended its procedure by emphasizing the need to maintain security during executions. Outsiders touching inmates in the execution chamber could inadvertently disrupt intravenous lines, and audible prayer could interfere with officials' ability to monitor signs of distress, the state said.
Texas argued that Ramirez's lawsuit was based on a desire to delay his execution and not "sincere religious belief."
Ramirez' lawyer said that both Ramirez and his pastor, "like many Christians, they believe they will either ascend to heaven or descend to hell at the moment of death."
Ramirez, 37, was not contesting his guilt.