Published on: Friday, February 12, 2021

The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the planned execution of an Alabama death row inmate late Thursday night, after justices upheld the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit's ruling requiring Willie B. Smith III's personal pastor to be in the chamber with him when he was given the lethal injection (article available here).

In the ruling, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that Alabama's Department of Correction's policy barring clergy members from the execution chamber over security concerns is a burden on Smith's religious liberties. She said his request is protected under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. “Willie Smith is sentenced to death, and his last wish is to have his pastor with him as he dies,” Justice Kagan wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Amy Coney Barrett .

"Alabama acknowledges that Smith's request is 'based on a religious belief and not some other motivation,'" Kagan wrote. "So Alabama's policy must withstand strict scrutiny. And it cannot."

Three justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh — indicated that they would have allowed the execution to go forward under Alabama’s policy. The remaining two justices – Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – did not publicly disclose how they voted, but at least one of them must have voted with four other justices to prevent the execution from occurring without a spiritual adviser.

The justices also lifted a stay of execution entered by the Eleventh Circuit in a separate proceeding, clearing the way for the state to execute Smith if it agrees to allow him to be accompanied by his pastor in the execution chamber. However, after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Alabama called off Smith’s execution.

Smith was scheduled to be the first person executed by a state in 2021. The last time an inmate was executed by a state was July 8, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.