The State of Texas v. Jesus Christ

Texas’s refusal to allow a pastor to pray while holding a dying man’s hand is an offense to basic Christian values.

About the author: Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

an inmates hands shown through bars holding a rosary
Charles Ommanney / Getty

Devotees to the cause of religious liberty may be startled to discover during the Supreme Court’s upcoming term that the latest legal-theological dispute finds the state of Texas locked in conflict with traditional Christian practice, where rites for the sick, condemned, and dying disrupt the preferences of executioners.

A recent stay in Ramirez v. Collier has again put Texas on the defense in a series of cases about whether death-row inmates have the right to be joined by clergy of their choice in the execution chamber. Earlier this month, the Court agreed to hear John Henry Ramirez’s claim that Texas’s refusal to allow a pastor to lay hands on and pray over him in the execution chamber is a violation of his constitutional rights; lower courts had held that silent prayer would suffice, which Ramirez protested. The Court issued a stay in a similar case in June 2020, when another Texas inmate, Ruben Gutierrez, asked for a Catholic priest to join him as he was killed. The Court has likewise intervened in Alabama, which has banned all clergy from its execution chamber, a policy that Texas enacted two years ago but reversed in April. Now Texas says it will allow clergy of any faith, provided they are vetted and pass a background check—though still with other limitations, as Ramirez shows.

The larger legal battle began in 2019, when the convicted murderer Patrick Murphy received a stay of execution because Texas had refused, per prison policy at the time, to allow him to have a Buddhist spiritual guide join him in the death chamber. At the time, Texas cited security concerns as its main reason for denying Murphy’s request, saying that it allowed only employees of the prison system—that is, its own Muslim or Christian chaplains—to be in the execution chamber at the time of an inmate’s death.

But this was dubious; heavily armed guards presiding over the poisoning of a man strapped to a gurney would never have been in actual danger. Murphy’s background seemed to play much more of a role in the press coverage and legal maneuvering that followed than Texas was willing to admit. After all, Murphy was an especially hateable inmate, a member of the infamous “Texas Seven, a gang of prisoners who, in 2000, escaped from a South Texas prison, committed a string of robberies, murdered a police officer, and then posed as Christian missionaries until their capture. Long before he rose to infamy as a cop killer, Murphy had been put away for 50 years for breaking into a high-school acquaintance’s apartment, tying her up at knifepoint, and sexually assaulting her. And then there was the issue of Buddhism itself, which Murphy seemed to take no small pleasure in using to highlight a certain Christian-centricism in Texas’s prison policy: “Texas more or less prides itself on being part of the Bible Belt, on being a very religious state,” he told one Texan journalist during a podcast interview. “So if they’re going to recognize one religion, I think they should recognize all religions.”

The Ramirez case brings Murphy’s critique into even sharper focus. A famously Christian state failing to accommodate a non-Christian inmate is disappointing but predictable; the same state flatly refusing to accommodate a Christian inmate suggests a more pervasive problem. Texas would permit Ramirez his pastor but draw the line at the minister laying hands on the man or praying aloud over him as the state kills him because, it argues, it has “a compelling interest in maintaining an orderly, safe, and effective process when carrying out an irrevocable, and emotionally charged, procedure.” A pastor praying aloud, holding a dying man’s hand, would bring too much flesh, too much humanity, into the thing. Execution theater is all about maintaining the illusion of mechanism.

And if the Court rules that the state’s preference for executions with the aesthetic aspirations of a medical procedure outweighs Ramirez’s desire for a Baptist pastor to lay hands on and pray over him as he is killed, it is precisely that fleshly, embodied, humane tradition of accompaniment—even for scoundrels—in Christianity that the Court will deny by the letter of the law.

“The state of Texas is wrong,” says Russell Moore, the director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project and a longtime Christian ethicist with special expertise in Baptist and other American Low Church traditions. “The Book of James calls upon Christians … to lay hands on those who are sick, and quite often those who are dying … to be with them to help them to pray—which is one of the things that their pastors do, is to help people to pray in moments in which it is very difficult to pray. And the execution chamber would certainly be one of those moments.”

In that sense, Texas’s limitations seem as much a restriction on the pastor’s religious practice as the inmate’s. I asked Moore if the prayer has to be audible, in his tradition, since the state has disputed as much.

“The audible nature of the prayer is maybe more important in this wing of Christianity than perhaps in others,” he explained. “Because it’s so centered around the Bible, the word of God, personal experience with Christ, and sort of the speaking of the prayer is a sign of continuity with what someone has received before, which are the words of Christ in scripture and handed down through the ages.”

Esau McCaulley, a professor of the New Testament at Wheaton College, pointed out to me that praying aloud reflects the nature of the relationship between God and his creations in the Christian faith. “Part of the logic of that is that we are entirely creatures,” he said, “and we don’t worship God with only our minds, but also our body, so our vocal cords matter … In almost every scenario and every Christian gathering, the form of prayer is audible. Silent prayer is a minority, and is actually not what’s prescribed for the vast majority of Christians throughout time.”

McCaulley observed that plenty of orders and rites—including the Episcopal Ministration at the Time of Death and the Roman Catholic Order for the Blessing of the Sick—clearly specify that prayers ought to be said aloud and, in the Catholic case, call for priests to lay hands on the afflicted person.

Not that Texas seeks to ban such things, only to deny them to the condemned, leaving room solely for what the state would have the law consider satisfactory Christian practice. And there Texas would betray the faith, whittling it into something so distant from its original shape as to render it barely recognizable. Whatever this Christian religion was meant to be when it was first formed, a luxury for the sinless and pure it certainly was not.