Supreme Court building.

Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic Defends Prisoners' Rights to Spiritual Comfort

The University of St. Thomas School of Law Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic has filed an amicus curiae brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Ramirez v. Collier. The brief was submitted on behalf of several major Christian religious organizations, including Southern Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and Anglicans.

The case challenges the constitutionality of a Texas policy that bars a spiritual adviser from providing aid to a prisoner during their execution. The petitioner, John Ramirez, asserts that not allowing his Baptist pastor to "lay on hands,” a long-standing religious practice, and pray aloud as he is put to death is a violation of his religious freedom rights. The case began as one is a series of emergency docket requests made to the Supreme Court over the past two years involving spiritual advisers at executions. Ramirez’s execution was postponed in September in order for the court to hear his appeal as part of its regular docket this term.

The justices will primarily determine whether Texas’ policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits “substantial burdens” on the rights of prison inmates, including those facing execution. Ramirez also asserts that the policy is a violation of his rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

The brief filed by the St. Thomas Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic argues that “the government has not satisfied its burden under RLUIPA to demonstrate that its blanket prohibition on clergy in the execution chamber engaging in audible prayer or laying on hands is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.” It emphasizes the lack of evidence that spiritual advisers have caused disruption even when praying aloud or touching the prisoner, and the state’s alternative means of ensuring order without a ban on these practices.

Tom Berg

“Both supporters and opponents of the death penalty should agree on one thing: If the state is to take the step of ending a human being’s life, it must allow him to exercise his religion in his final moments of life – and exercise it meaningfully, by hearing and feeling his minister’s spiritual comfort, not simply knowing that the minister is silent in the corner,” professor Tom Berg, who leads the Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic, said.

Roxanne Reinfeld

Third-year St. Thomas law students Roxanne Reinfeld and Victor Reim conducted research and wrote drafts of the brief, with editing by Berg. Co-counsel on the brief is Kimberlee Wood Colby of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law & Religious Freedom.

"Roxanne and Victor did fantastic research and drafting work on our clinic brief on a short timeline," Berg said. "They threw themselves into the case and did what associates at top-tier firms do – produce first-rate work on complex issues under pressure."

St. Thomas Law professors and alumni are part of other amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in support of Ramirez and prisoners’ rights for meaningful spiritual comfort during their execution.

Victor Reim

Teresa Stanton Collett and Michael Stokes Paulsen are among the signatories on a religious liberty scholars amicus brief written by Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia and the University of Texas Law and Religion Clinic.

Alumna Rachana Chhin '15 J.D./MA, legislative counsel for the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, is co-counsel on a brief filed on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops.

Ramirez v. Collier is set to be argued before the Supreme Court on Nov. 9, 2021.

Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic

The Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic is one of 14 legal clinics at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. The clinic’s primary clients are national civil liberties organizations and national religious organizations. Each year St. Thomas law students apply to participate in the clinic and, under the guidance of Berg, write appellate briefs – primarily amicus curiae briefs – in cases involving religious liberty in the U.S. Supreme Court, lower federal courts and state appellate courts. The clinic supports religious freedom for all faiths and has filed briefs on behalf of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian adherents and groups.