Religious Sincerity and Executions
My good friend Nathan Chapman passed along these thoughts on Ramirez, which I’m posting with his permission.
John Henry Ramirez was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a Texas court in 2008 for killing Pablo Castro. Ramirez now argues that he has a right under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment to have his pastor audibly pray and “lay his hands” on him while he dies. The Supreme Court is considering whether permitting the pastor to enter the death chamber—but not permitting him to audibly pray and/or lay his hands on Ramirez—amounts to a “substantial burden” on Ramirez’s religious liberty. I joined an amicus brief with other scholars arguing that it does.
The Court heard oral argument in the case on November 9. Several of the justices expressed concerns that Ramirez’s claims may not be sincere, that courts do not have the competence to adjudicate a religious accommodation claimant’s sincerity, and that finding for Ramirez would lead to a flood of religious liberty suits (including those based on insincere claims) to delay executions. It was clear from the questioning that some of the justices were wrestling with a legal question the Court has never squarely addressed: may, or can, a court adjudicate a religious accommodation claimant’s sincerity? In short, yes. When a claimant’s sincerity is put in question, courts should decide the issue without casting judgment on the accuracy of the claimant’s religious beliefs. As the Court considers Ramirez, it should keep in mind that its decision may have implications far beyond death penalty cases—potentially reaching every religious accommodation case.
The Court should rely on several principles about adjudicating religious sincerity. (Much of this is drawn from an article I published several years ago in the Washington Law Review.)
- A religious accommodation claimant must be sincere. If the claim is not sincere, it is not really a religious accommodation claim – it is just a request for a legal variance, a fraudulent one at that.
- The Establishment Clause does not prohibit the government from determining whether a claimant is sincere. Justice Jackson eloquently argued that it does in a dissenting opinion in Ballard v. United States, 322 U.S. 78 (1944). The thrust of his argument was that a court cannot evaluate religious sincerity without also evaluating the truthfulness of the religious claim. Sometimes justices have implied the same in o
Article from Reason.com