TEXAS halts executions amid battle over refusal to allow pastors to touch death row inmates like John Henry Ramirez.
Last month, the US Supreme Court blocked executions in Texas after deciding to hear religious freedom claims from death row inmates.
Ramirez was scheduled to be executed on September 8 for fatally stabbing convenience store clerk Pablo Castro in 2004.
However, three hours before he was set to die from a lethal injection, the US Supreme Court agreed Texas violated his religious freedom by preventing his pastor to lay hands on him.
Pastor Dana Moore, who has been Ramirez's spiritual advisor since 2016, believed death row inmates deserve to be treated "with a certain amount of dignity."
"John's sentence wasn't death and you can't have any meaningful contact," said Moore, a pastor at Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi. He is paying for his crime.
"I guess the question that would come up, 'Is that not enough?'"
Ramirez's lawyer Seth Kretzer accused the Texas Department of Criminal Justice of violating the death row inmate's First Amendment rights to practice his religion by preventing his pastor from placing his hands on him and chanting prayers when he was to undergo lethal injection.
Kretzer compared the ban on the vocal prayer a spiritual "gag order."
"It is hostile toward religion, denying religious exercise at the precise moment it is most needed: when someone is transitioning from this life to the next," according to the papers.
Several other inmates have since made similar claims, and courts have put some of their executions on hold.
The most recent delay was for Stephen Barbee, who was set to be executed Tuesday.
However, US District Judge Kenneth Hoyt ruled Thursday that Barbee has initially shown Texas’ “limitations in the execution chamber substantially burden the exercise of his religion.”
“I am very grateful for the stay of execution in Mr. Barbee’s case as it will allow the court time to evaluate these important religious rights issues,” Richard Ellis, Barbee’s attorney, said on Friday.
Courts already had granted delays for two other inmates – Ruben Gutierrez, scheduled for October 27, and Fabian Hernandez, set for November 3 – at prosecutors' request.
Kosoul Chanthakoummane, set to die November 10, and Ramiro Gonzales, scheduled for execution on November 17, also are raising similar religious freedom claims, which could delay their lethal injections.
Executions in Texas have been irregular in the last two years, primarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The state carried out just three lethal injections in 2020 and three so far this year.
In comparison, Texas carried out 13 executions in 2018 and nine in 2019.
A ruling from the Supreme Court could be months away as it’s set to hear oral arguments about the religious claims on November 1.
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