Supreme Court Weighing Alabama Ban on Clergy at Executions

The religious freedom law firm Becket filed an amicus brief in the case, supporting Smith’s request for Pastor Wiley to be present at his execution.

United States Supreme Court at dawn.
United States Supreme Court at dawn. (photo: Ian Hutchinson / Unsplash)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the case of an Alabama death row inmate who has asked to have a Christian pastor present with him to pray in the final moments of his life.

Alabama inmate Willie Smith is scheduled to be executed February 11. Late on the night of February 10, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Alabama must allow Pastor Robert Paul Wiley, Jr. to be present in the execution chamber, reversing a lower court decision. Wiley has ministered to Smith for years during his time in prison. Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court to reverse the decision and allow the execution to move forward without the pastor present.

In 2019, the Alabama Department of Corrections banned clergy members from being present with people being executed by the state. The rule was put in place following a controversy in Texas in which some religions were allowed to have ministers at executions, but others were not. The Supreme Court told Texas it could not continue this practice of selectively choosing which faiths could have ministers present. Texas and Alabama then both implemented bans on all clergy during executions.

Smith, 51, has been convicted of abducting and murdering a woman 30 years ago. His case had been controversial, with disputes about whether he is intellectually disabled, which would prohibit him from receiving the death penalty. An expert for the defense said Smith’s IQ is 64, while an expert for the prosecutors said it is 72. An IQ below 70 is one of the standards used to diagnose an intellectual disability. 

The religious freedom law firm Becket filed an amicus brief in the case, supporting Smith’s request for Pastor Wiley to be present at his execution. 

“Allowing clergy to be present for condemned prisoners at the moment of death is an ancient and common practice, one that Alabama is familiar with,” said Beck Senior Counsel Diana Verm. “In fact, until 2019, Alabama not only allowed but required clergy in the death chamber. That shows Alabama is less concerned about security than it is about litigation tactics.”

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