Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Death rights at the Supreme Court

Religious Liberty | Inmate spared execution after Alabama denies access to clergy
by Steve West
Posted 2/15/21, 03:33 pm

A divided Supreme Court at the 11th hour hit pause on an execution in Alabama. The justices on Thursday found the state violated the inmate’s religious freedom by blocking his pastor from being present at the moment of death. In her opinion, Justice Elena Kagan agreed with the appeals court that Alabama had not shown prison security required excluding all clergy from the execution chamber.

Willie Smith faced lethal injection for the 1991 robbery and murder of 22-year-old Sharma Ruth Johnson. Prison officials had restricted Smith’s pastor to observing from an adjacent room, rather than being in the execution chamber. Kagan cited the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which only allows the government to limit religious freedom if it can prove a compelling interest and uses the least restrictive means available. “The law guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the state puts him to death,” Kagan wrote.

The case divided the conservative wing of the bench. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas voted to allow the execution. Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch did not weigh in with an opinion, but at least one must have voted with the majority. New conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined Kagan’s decision.

The prison argued the warden had to determine who was trustworthy to be in the room. But Kagan criticized the resulting categorical bar to clergy. “The state can do a background check on the minister; it can interview him and his associates; it can seek a penalty-backed pledge that he will obey all rules,” she said. “What the state cannot do … is simply presume that every clergy member will be untrustworthy—or otherwise said, that only the harshest restriction can work.”

The Supreme Court has repeatedly addressed policies surrounding clergy access to death row inmates. In a March 2019 ruling, the justices stayed Patrick Henry Murphy’s death after Texas refused to allow a Buddhist spiritual adviser in the execution chamber. In a statement accompanying the decision, Kavanaugh said states could consider barring all clergy to avoid unfair treatment.

That’s what Alabama did. Kavanaugh was supportive, but suggested a better approach on Thursday. “States that want to avoid months or years of litigation delays because of this RLUIPA issue should figure out a way to allow spiritual advisors into the execution room,” he said. “Doing so not only would satisfy inmates’ requests, but also would avoid still further delays and bring long overdue closure for victims’ families.”

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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  • reader 400
    Posted: Tue, 02/16/2021 12:16 am

    Switching execution methods to firing squad or nitrogen asphyxiation via gas chamber will show that the inmate does not need clergy in the death chamber during the execution. If the court would have asked why it is necessary for the inmate to have clergy in the death chamber, I doubt that he would have provided a legitimate reason. Clergy with the inmate prior to being moved to the death chamber and in an adjacent room during the execution (where the inmate's family is restricted to in states that permit the inmate's family to witness the execution, by the way) is good enough. And why isn't family permitted in the death chamber? Ask the family of Billie Wayne Coble, who banged on the glass after he gave his final statement. The prison is right to restrict access to the death chamber to appropriate prison staff only.

  • OldMike
    Posted: Thu, 02/18/2021 01:52 am

    I wouldn't doubt that there are members of clergy who would actively try to interfere with the execution. That would run a risk of harm to themselves and prison personnel.  It seems completely reasonable to me to restrict who is allowed in the execution chamber to the condemned and prison personnel.