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FFRF: Supreme Court misses opportunity to ban death penalty

Death Penalty

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling handed down today, has delayed the execution of a Texas inmate on the grounds he was denied a spiritual adviser at his execution. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is disappointed at the missed opportunity to overturn the death penalty and address its concerns about the lawsuit.

In the ruling by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., with only Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, the court held that Texas could not execute inmate John Ramirez unless his pastor was able to be there in person, touch him and give an audible prayer. The court held that Texas did not have sufficient reason to burden Ramirez’s religious liberty by denying the comfort of a pastor, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (a statute also known as RLUIPA).

FFRF filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case urging the high court to stop Ramirez’s execution, but asking for two reforms: ensuring that religious and nonreligious inmates are treated equitably, and overturning the death penalty altogether. FFRF’s brief, joined by two other secular organizations, pointed out the absurdity of the Supreme Court merely delaying a state-sponsored execution based on minor considerations of religious liberty, when the execution itself is a far greater affront to the liberty rights protected under RLUIPA and the U.S. Constitution.

The high court’s recent line of cases involving end-of-life religious accommodations in capital cases signals a broader, troubling pattern of recklessly expanding alleged “religious liberty” protections in order to give preferential treatment to some religious litigants. Similar reasoning can be applied to allow religious business owners to discriminate, public contractors to refuse to place foster children with LGBTQ families, religious public school teachers to push their beliefs on students, and more.

“If the Supreme Court is serious about protecting the liberty rights of prisoners on death row, it should ban the Old Testament practice of capital punishment altogether,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The rest of the developed world has abandoned state-sponsored killings, which are rooted in religion and have no place in a modern society.” 

FFRF’s brief argued that the death penalty is unjustified in a secular nation such as the United States, since it stems in part from biblical roots, and is unconstitutional under the First and Eighth Amendments. FFRF asserts that the issue before the court is Kafkaesque because the law is quibbling over Ramirez’s constitutional rights moments before it takes them away forever. If there is going to be an execution, FFRF maintains, any rule and protections the court hands down for inmates must apply to the nonreligious. 

“A state-sponsored execution violates the Eighth Amendment because it permanently destroys a person’s human dignity, and is thus cruel and unusual,” stated the brief. “Further, the Damocles sword hanging over a person on death row is torturous, and death row tenure is so long that a death sentence in practice amounts to more than a decade of torture, which is itself cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

Freethinkers have been the first to speak out for the abolition of the death penalty, which was routinely carried out by the Catholic or other churches entwined with governments and monarchies. The majority of FFRF’s membership opposes the death penalty, according to its 2020 survey. FFRF is headquartered in Wisconsin, which was the first U.S. state to abolish the death penalty permanently for all crimes (in 1853), and the second major jurisdiction in the world, after Iceland, to get rid of it.

FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert and FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne drafted the amicus brief for the organization. Photo via Shutterstock by Felipe Caparros. 

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