Wednesday, February 17, 2021
On February 11, 2021, the US Supreme Court let stand a ruling that stayed the execution of a man in prison in Alabama. William B. Smith III requested that his Christian Pastor be present at his execution. Mr. Smith's lawyers argued that their client needed his pastor present to provide him comfort “including by holding his hand, praying with him in his final moments and easing the transition between the worlds of the living and the dead.” Barrett, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor voted to uphold the bar on Smith's execution. Justice Kagan wrote: "I concur in the Court’s decision to leave that order in place, and I write to explain why. Alabama has not carried its burden of showing that the exclusion of all clergy
members from the execution chamber is necessary to ensure prison security. So the State cannot now execute Smith without his pastor present..."
One year earlier the Court refused to stay another Alabama execution where a Muslim inmate requested the presence of his Imam at the execution. In that case, the Court lifted a stay of execution that the appeals court had entered saying that Mr. Ray, the individual awaiting execution, waited too long to make his request known. (But aren't many requests for Supreme Court stays brought in the last hours?) Justice Kagan dissented. "The clearest command of the Establishment Clause, this Court has held, is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another. Larson v. Valente, 456 U. S. 228, 244 (1982). But the State’s policy does just that. Under that policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites. But if an inmate practices a different religion—whether Islam, Judaism, or any other—he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality."
Expecting rational thinking and attention to details in pre-planning one's own violent death is particularly harsh and unempathetic. A belated request for religious comfort is not unreasonable and should not be unexpected. The perspective on last-minute requests appears to change, however, when the clergy requested by the condemned is Christian. In such a case, the law reveals its more sympathetic side.