Late Thursday night, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama must allow Willie B. Smith III’s pastor to be with him in his execution chamber, upholding the decision of a lower court.
The state of Alabama had filed an emergency application asking the Supreme Court to reverse the decision made by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Eleventh Circuit had ruled that denying Smith the presence of his pastor, Robert Wiley Jr., was a violation of his religious rights.
“Alabama’s policy substantially burdens Smith’s exercise of religion,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a majority opinion also signed by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Amy Coney Barrett, and Stephen Bryer. “The law guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the State puts him to death.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote a dissent saying that Alabama’s restriction of all religious advisers was non-discriminatory and served the purpose of ensuring “safety, security and solemnity” in the execution chamber; Chief Justice John Roberts concurred. Justice Clarence Thomas noted that he would have approved Alabama’s application but did not offer an explanation of his reasoning; Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito did not note their opinions.
As Sojourners previously reported, Smith’s legal defense had argued that Alabama’s protocol of not allowing spiritual advisers to be in the execution chamber was a violation of Smith’s religious freedom. “Smith’s faith teaches him that the point of transition between life and death is important and that Pastor Wiley can provide spiritual guidance during this difficult time,” argued Smith's public defender in a statement.
Kagan’s opinion noted that “Smith understands his minister’s presence as ‘integral to [his] faith’ and ‘essential to [his] spiritual search for redemption.’”
Wiley has said that he and Smith talk at least once a week.
“[A]s part of the body of Christ, we all must comfort one another, and there is no greater time to need that comfort than when dealing with the loss of loved one or facing loss of your own life,” an affidavit from Wiley reads.
For religious liberty advocates, the late-night ruling from the Supreme Court was a welcome decision. Jennifer Hawks, associate general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said the law was very clear that religious freedom does not end when one is incarcerated.
“Judges on the outside aren’t the ones who are involved in these day-to-day decisions and they don’t necessarily want to be micromanaging prison officials,” she said. “However, the court has been very clear that constitutional rights don’t necessarily end at the prison door, and when they can be accommodated, there is a duty to do so, particularly when it comes to religious exercise.”
She said Justice Kagan made the correct ruling by finding that it was Smith’s religious conviction that needed to be upheld considering Alabama’s inability to show that Wiley would be a safety concern.
“Religious accommodation, at the moment of a state-imposed death, should never depend on the government’s religious preference,” Hawks said. “If the federal government and [other] states have figured out how to have religious leaders who are not prison employees safely present in the execution chamber, Alabama must demonstrate why what’s normal in other jurisdictions is impossible in Alabama.”
Despite the court’s religious accommodation, some faith leaders still see it as a profound injustice that the state is scheduled to execute Smith.
“Certainly, we can give thanks that the Supreme Court ruled against Alabama’s efforts to execute someone without their spiritual advisor present,” Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, Catholic Mobilizing Network's executive director, told Sojourners in an email. “But we should still be profoundly disturbed that had the state allowed Mr. Smith’s advisor in the chamber last night — arguably the most basic dignity they could afford him — he might not be alive today. We must not miss the forest for the trees.”
The Eleventh Circuit previously granted Smith a stay of execution until Feb. 16, while the court evaluates another claim that the execution is a violation of Smith’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to Anand Agneshwar of Arnold & Porter law firm, which has taken up Smith’s case pro bono, the state of Alabama could choose to keep litigating Smith's religious liberty case if they wanted to bring more evidence before the Eleventh Circuit.
Agneshwar hopes, however, that the state will instead allow Wiley to be by Smith’s side in the execution chamber. Even in his dissent, Kavanaugh noted that “it seems apparent that States that want to avoid months or years of litigation delays ... should figure out a way to allow spiritual advisors into the execution room, as other States and the Federal Government have done.”