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On The Front Lines

Religious Freedom Victory: U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Death Row Inmate’s Right To Have Pastor Present As Spiritual Advisor During Execution

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a victory for religious freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the right of a death row inmate to have a spiritual advisor present during his execution. In its ruling in Dunn v. Smith, the Supreme Court found that Alabama violated federal law protecting the right of prisoners to religious freedom, noting that the state had previously allowed spiritual advisors in the death chamber and only changed that policy when they were required to apply it to all religions. In an emergency amicus brief challenging the state’s refusal to allow death row inmate Willie Smith to have a Christian pastor with him when he is executed, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute argued that Alabama had not shown a compelling security reason for denying Smith’s last wish and pointed out that the federal Bureau of Prisons allows this practice.

Affiliate attorney Christopher Moriarty assisted The Rutherford Institute with the emergency brief.

“It doesn’t matter what religion is being endorsed—whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or something else—government officials cannot favor one religion over another,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This scenario—where the government dictates which religious beliefs are acceptable and which are not—is exactly why we have a clause in the First Amendment protecting religious freedom and prohibiting the government from establishing, or favoring, one religion over another.”

Willie Smith, convicted in 1992 of murder and kidnapping and sentenced to death by an Alabama court, was scheduled to be executed on February 11, 2021. While incarcerated, Smith became a born-again Christian and developed a close relationship with a pastor who had acted as his spiritual advisor. Smith’s burgeoning faith placed great emphasis on the transition between life and death. Thus, having a spiritual advisor present at his execution was of paramount importance to him. Although Alabama had allowed chaplains to be in the death chamber with an inmate during an execution, it changed that policy in 2019 in response to a legal ruling that found it unconstitutional to limit the presence of an advisor to the prison’s Christian chaplain and not clergy of other religions. In December 2020, Smith filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s refusal to allow him to have his Christian pastor with him during the execution, arguing that this violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law that forbids states from imposing a substantial burden on the religious beliefs and practice of inmates unless there is a compelling reason for doing so. On February 2, 2021, a federal district court denied Smith’s request for an injunction preventing the state from executing him without his spiritual advisor present. However, in response to an emergency appeal, a federal circuit court upheld Smith’s RLUIPA claim and entered an injunction the day before his scheduled execution. In a subsequent emergency application to the U.S. Supreme Court, state officials requested the injunction be vacated so the execution could go on as scheduled without the presence of Smith’s pastor. In upholding the lower court’s stay on Smith’s execution, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama had violated the death row inmate’s right to religious freedom under RLUIPA by denying his request to have a spiritual advisor present at his execution.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.

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