Friday, February 12, 2021

11th Circuit: Pastor Should Be Allowed In Execution Chamber

In Smith v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, (11t Cir., Feb. 10, 2021), the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, reversed an Alabama district court's denial of an injunction to an inmate seeking to have his pastor present in the execution chamber with him. Prison rules allow only members of the execution team and certain medical personnel to be present. Focusing on RLUIPA, the majority said in part:

Although it correctly found Smith had a sincere belief that Pastor Wiley should be present in the execution chamber, the court erred by finding Smith’s exercise of that belief was not substantially burdened simply because Smith expressed a “preference” rather than prove his belief was fundamental to his religion. The court also improperly relied on alternative ways that Smith could practice his religion, including that Smith can visit and pray with Pastor Wiley leading up to his execution and Pastor Wiley can observe the execution from the viewing room.

The majority went on to conclude that while the state has a compelling interest in prison security, its policy is not the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.  It could, as does the federal prison system, require the prisoner to designate his spiritual advisor as soon as an execution date is set so that the state can conduct a background check.

Judge Jordan dissented, saying in part:

Whether the district court got RLUIPA’s least restrictive means requirement right or wrong, I do not believe that its decision constitutes an abuse of discretion.