The civil liberties guaranteed to us by the First Amendment of our Constitution aren’t just aspirational value statements; they represent a foundational responsibility that governments of all levels in the United States have to protect the people. Protecting religious freedom is one of those responsibilities that should be taken seriously no matter the circumstances.
On March 24th, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States passed down their decision in the case Ramirez v. Collier. This case involved a request by death row inmate John Ramirez to have a spiritual advisor pray out loud and touch him while his execution is carried out. SCOTUS agreed with Ramirez’s arguments that his religious freedom protections were denied and his use of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) to justify this claim. The Court reversed the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision and remanded the case back to lower courts.
This case should serve as a reminder to us all that complicated circumstances do not excuse any level of government from its constitutional mandate to protect religious freedom. Incarcerated individuals, including those on death row, should always have their liberties protected just as fiercely.
RLUIPA was enacted to affirm incarcerated individuals’ right to practice their religion and is the statute under which Ramirez sought acceptance of his request. Despite a constitutional mandate and RLUIPA, however, the religious rights of prisoners are regularly violated. The Bill of Rights, the text from which religious freedom in this country originates, was written as a check on the federal government’s actions against the American people. Over the years and through a process known as selective incorporation, the freedoms have been applied by the Supreme Court as a check on state governments as well. According to a recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative, just 208,000 of nearly 2 million incarcerated individuals are held in federal prisons. States cannot and should not get a pass on safeguarding the irrevocable rights of all Americans.
Several past legal cases document injustices similar to the one in question in Ramirez. The Supreme Court case Holt v. Hobbs, for example, deliberated a situation in which Arkansas prison officials denied an individual’s exemption request to grow his beard in compliance with his religious beliefs. The DOJ intervened at a Detention Center in South Carolina, calling a policy that prevented all reading materials except for the Bible unconstitutional.
The right to practice one’s religious beliefs is not up for debate. It is not within the state or federal government’s power to decide to revoke this civil liberty simply because the circumstances might be more complicated. These central tenets are in place to outline what it means to be protected by this country, a protection that applies to all Americans. In Ramirez, the Supreme Court affirmed that protection. We hope the court continues to affirm true religious freedom, even as the values of the justices who comprise it shift over time.
Learn more about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to protect true religious freedom.