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The Supreme Court’s latest religion opinion should reassure liberals

Ramirez v. Collier indicates that the Court retains some commitment to the rule of law.

The words “Equal Justice” and the Authority of Law statue are seen at the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on March 9.
Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Ramirez v. Collier, which involved a death row inmate who sought to have his pastor lay hands on him and audibly pray during his execution. Though there are some procedural complexities to the decision, eight justices sided with John Ramirez, the inmate. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.

It was, in short, a ruling that prioritized religious liberty.

But, perhaps surprisingly, the Ramirez decision should be comforting to liberals, including myself, who’ve watched the Court’s recent religion decisions with alarm. Especially after Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation in the fall of 2020 gave Republicans a supermajority on the Supreme Court, the Court has been extraordinarily solicitous toward conservative Christian litigants — even ruling in favor of litigants who sought legal exemptions that potentially endangered other citizens’ lives.

But the Court hasn’t always shown the same respect for religion claims brought by people who do not make up a key constituency of the Republican Party.

In Trump v. Hawaii (2018), the Court upheld former President Donald Trump’s policy banning people from several majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States — and it did so despite the fact that Trump repeatedly bragged about his plans to implement a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Then, in Dunn v. Ray (2019), the Court’s Republican appointees ruled against a Muslim inmate in Alabama who wanted to have his imam present at his execution. Significantly, Alabama permitted Christian inmates to have a spiritual adviser present, but not Muslims. But the Constitution does not permit such discrimination among faiths. As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her Dunn dissent, “the clearest command of the Establishment Clause ... is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.”

Two years later, the Court seemed to realize it had gone too far, and ruled a Christian inmate could have his pastor present. John Ramirez, the Texas death row inmate in the case decided Thursday, sought to test the extent of that walk-back. His case is distinct because he did not simply ask to have his pastor present, but also to have that pastor pray audibly and lay hands on him during his execution.

At oral arguments in Ramirez, most of the Court’s conservative bloc appeared likely to say their new permissiveness was quite limited. Although Ramirez is a Christian, several of the justices suggested at oral argument that the Court should not entertain his claim because doing so could lead to too much work for the justices themselves.

Justice Samuel Alito, for example, complained that “we can look forward to an unending stream of variations,” from death row inmates seeking different religious accommodations if the Court ruled in Ramirez’s favor.

Ultimately, however, Alito — along with every justice other than Thomas — joined an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, which ruled in Ramirez’s favor. Technically, the opinion permits Texas to continue litigating this case in a lower court, but Texas would also have to delay Ramirez’s execution in order to do so. And Roberts’s Ramirez opinion announces a legal rule which would make it difficult for Texas to prevail if it does decide to continue litigating this case.

If nothing else, this opinion is a sign that the Court will not always limit the blessings of religious liberty to politically favored causes.

Condemned prisoners have received spiritual comfort during their executions for hundreds of years

As Roberts’s opinion notes, the state of Texas, which plans to execute Ramirez, allowed chaplains to pray with condemned inmates in the execution chamber until just a few years ago. This is also the practice in federal executions. As Roberts writes “in 2020 and 2021, the Federal Bureau of Prisons allowed religious advisors to speak or pray audibly with inmates during at least six federal executions.”

Indeed, this practice of providing spiritual comfort to condemned prisoners stretches back hundreds of years. “By the early 1700s,” Roberts writes, condemned inmates at “one of London’s most notorious jails” were allowed “to be ‘attended by a minister, or even a priest, of their own communion.’” Similarly, during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington ordered that condemned prisoners “be attended with such Chaplains, as they choose.”

This decency was extended even to enemies and traitors. When “the Federal Government executed four members of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the prisoners were accompanied by clergy of various denominations,” Roberts notes. After the Allied victory in World War II, “the United States Army even permitted Nazi war criminals facing execution to be accompanied by a chaplain, who ‘spoke’ prayers on the gallows in the moments before death.”

Texas’s relatively recent practice of denying such comfort to condemned prisoners, in other words, is out of line with centuries of tradition. As the Court ruled in Ramirez, it’s also out of line with a federal statute, known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which provides that “no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution,” except in rare cases where the government has an especially compelling reason to do so, and uses the “least restrictive means” to advance that goal.

To justify its new policy, Texas primarily argued that allowing Ramirez the spiritual comfort he seeks would create unnecessary security risks or interfere with the execution. If the pastor is allowed to pray out loud, for example, Texas claimed that this might impede prison officials’ “ability to hear subtle signs of trouble” during the execution. If the pastor can lay hands on the prisoner, they “might tamper with the prisoner’s restraints or yank out an IV line.”

But these claims that spiritual advisers are a security risk are undermined by the fact that clergy have been allowed to comfort dying inmates for hundreds of years without incident. They’re also undermined by the fact that Texas could use less restrictive means to allay its concerns. If Texas is afraid that Ramirez’s pastor may tamper with the IV line, for example, it can require the pastor to stand, in Roberts’s words, “well away from the site of any IV line.”

The long, difficult road to Ramirez

The Court’s decision in Ray, the case involving the Muslim inmate, was widely condemned by liberals and conservatives alike. Writing in the conservative National Review, David French labeled the Court decision to deny spiritual comfort to this inmate a “grave violation of the First Amendment.”

Indeed, the Ray opinion triggered such a backlash that the Court appeared to respond to this backlash in Bucklew v. Precythe (2019), a 5-4 death penalty decision handed down months after Ray. The Ray opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch claimed in Bucklew, was handed down because “the inmate waited to bring an available claim until just 10 days before his scheduled execution,” not because the Court bore any particular animus against Muslims.

But this justification for the result in Ray never made sense. As Justice Kagan noted in her Ray dissent, the inmate in that case filed his lawsuit just five days after the prison warden formally denied his request to have an imam present at the execution. And the warden did so despite a state law providing that “the inmate’s spiritual adviser of choice ‘may be present at an execution.’” So the inmate in Ray couldn’t have possibly known that he needed to file a lawsuit sooner.

By 2021, a majority of the Court appeared to realize that Ray was untenable. In Dunn v. Smith (2021), the Court permitted a Christian inmate to have a pastor present during his execution. And even the dissenting justices appeared to concede that they’d been beat. In his dissenting opinion in Smith, Justice Kavanaugh wrote that “it seems apparent that States that want to avoid months or years of litigation delays because of this RLUIPA issue should figure out a way to allow spiritual advisors into the execution room, as other States and the Federal Government have done.”

So it was surprising that, during the oral argument in Ramirez, so many of the justices appeared so dismissive of Ramirez’s legal claims — and so worried about whether, if the Court ruled in favor of Ramirez, it would create more work for the justices by inspiring other inmates to file similar lawsuits.

In the end, however, eight justices chose the rule of law over their own personal convenience. That’s the bare minimum that anyone can expect out of a court of law. But, given the Court’s prior decisions in Hawaii and Ray, it’s also a much more reassuring outcome than the alternative.