WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court late Thursday night let stand a ruling that halted the execution of an Alabama inmate unless the state allowed his pastor to be present in the death chamber.
The inmate, Willie B. Smith III, a Christian, sought to have his pastor, Robert Paul Wiley Jr., provide him with spiritual guidance and comfort, his lawyers wrote, “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.”
Prison officials denied the request under a recently revised policy that bars from the execution chamber spiritual advisers of all faiths. A federal appeals court then ruled that the execution could not proceed unless Pastor Wiley was allowed to be present.
The Supreme Court’s order said only that it would not vacate the injunction entered by the appeals court requiring the pastor’s presence. It gave no reasons.
The order did not specify how every justice had voted. But Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court’s three-member liberal wing — made up of Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — to let the appeals court’s ruling stand.
“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,” Justice Kagan wrote for those four justices in a concurring opinion. “So the state cannot now execute Smith without his pastor present, to ease what Smith calls the ‘transition between the worlds of the living and the dead.’”
“Prison security is, of course, a compelling state interest,” Justice Kagan wrote. “But past practice, in Alabama and elsewhere, shows that a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber.”
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he would have lifted the injunction but gave no reasons.
In a dissent, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., wrote that he, too, would have lifted the injunction.
“Because the state’s policy is nondiscriminatory and, in my view, serves the state’s compelling interests in ensuring the safety, security and solemnity of the execution room,” he wrote, “I would have granted the state’s application to vacate the injunction.”
Justice Kavanaugh added some practical advice.
“States that want to avoid months or years of litigation delays,” he wrote, “should figure out a way to allow spiritual advisers into the execution room, as other states and the federal government have done. Doing so not only would satisfy inmates’ requests, but also would avoid still further delays and bring long overdue closure for victims’ families.”
It was not clear how Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch voted.
Mr. Smith was sentenced to death in 1992 for robbing, kidnapping and murdering Sharma Ruth Johnson after approaching her at an A.T.M.
The case was the latest in a series of disputes on the roles spiritual advisers may play during executions that have bitterly divided the justices. In 2019, the Supreme Court allowed the execution of another Alabama inmate, Domineque Ray, a Muslim, by a 5-to-4 vote. At the time, Alabama allowed only a Christian chaplain employed by the prison system to offer spiritual guidance to condemned inmates during their last moments.
Justice Kagan, writing for the dissenters in 2019, said the majority was “profoundly wrong.” Under Alabama’s policy, she wrote, “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,” Justice Kagan wrote.
About two months later, the court confronted a similar case from Texas and came to a different conclusion, staying the execution of a Buddhist inmate whose request that his spiritual adviser be present in the execution chamber had been denied.
In a brief, unsigned order, the court said that Texas could not execute the inmate, Patrick H. Murphy, “unless the state permits Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual adviser or another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber during the execution.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Kavanaugh wrote that the state’s policy of allowing only Christian and Muslim chaplains to attend executions amounted to unconstitutional religious discrimination. “The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations,” he wrote.
Justice Kavanaugh wrote that states could exclude advisers of all denominations from the execution chamber, but may not allow only some to be present.
In response, Alabama changed its policy, now barring all spiritual advisers from the death chamber. Mr. Smith challenged that policy under a federal law that requires states to meet a demanding standard for actions that place a burden on religious rights.
Alabama officials responded that the new policy was justified by security concerns.
A divided three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, ruled that Alabama’s policy failed that test. It ordered the state “to permit Smith to have Pastor Wiley present in the execution chamber at the time of execution.”
Judge Beverly B. Martin, writing for the majority, noted that federal officials had allowed spiritual advisers to comfort inmates during recent executions. She said prison officials should have explored alternatives, like background checks of designated advisers, to address their security concerns.
Alabama officials filed an emergency application asking the Supreme Court to allow them to execute Mr. Smith without his pastor present “to preserve the security and solemnity of the execution.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a brief supporting Mr. Smith.
“Allowing a spiritual adviser in the execution chamber to pray over someone as he passes over into death is an ancient and common practice,” the brief said. “The federal government and multiple states have provided spiritual advisers to prisoners in many executions, including in 13 of the 20 executions carried out nationwide since 2020. Their practices show that what Smith requests can be done.”