Conservatives Find Rare Common Ground With ACLU in Death Penalty Religious Freedom Case

In a rare instance of agreement, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and some conservative religious groups have established similar positions on the religious rights an inmate should have in the execution chamber.

The Southern Baptist Convention and the ACLU are named in friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that the pastor for John Ramirez, who is scheduled to be executed in Texas, should be permitted to lay hands on him and pray aloud when he is put to death, the Associated Press reported.

Though the ACLU is firmly against the death penalty, the group argues that those who carry out executions should at least permit prisoners to exercise their religious freedom.

"If the state is going to engage in this practice, it should make every effort to honor the dignity and religious liberties of those it plans to kill," said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

The Southern Baptist Convention supports "the fair and equitable use of capital punishment" but last month joined six other faith-centered groups in a brief requesting that Ramirez's pastor, Dana Moore, be allowed to touch him and pray during the execution. The U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments for Ramirez's case next Tuesday, AP reported.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Death Penalty Protest
In a rare instance of agreement, the American Civil Liberties Union and some conservative religious groups have established similar positions on the religious rights a death row inmate should have in the execution chamber. Above, Sister Barbara Battista speaks during a protest against the death penalty, across the street from the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, on August 26, 2020. Michael Conroy/AP Photo

After Sister Barbara Battista, a Roman Catholic nun staunchly opposed to the death penalty, agreed to accompany a condemned man at his execution in federal prison, she wondered doubtfully, "Am I just part of this whole killing machine?"

"The answer is 'No,'" she decided, proceeding with her mission to the death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, where in August 2020 Battista said a silent prayer while witnessing the lethal injection of Keith Dwayne Nelson, convicted of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing a 10-year-old girl.

"No matter how heinous the act, no matter how much I'm opposed to it, that person deserves to have someone who is there simply because they care," she said.

Battista's name is now on the friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court by the ACLU.

Ramirez, sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of a convenience store clerk, was scheduled to be executed September 8, but the Supreme Court ordered a delay to consider claims that restrictions on the pastor's role would violate his religious liberties.

"Religious freedom doesn't end as you approach the moment of death," said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the SBC's public policy arm. "The state has yet to make a compelling reason for why Pastor Moore cannot minister to Mr. Ramirez in these final moments."

Texas allows spiritual advisers into the execution chamber but bars them from praying audibly or being by the condemned inmate's side. In its arguments to the Supreme Court, Texas said granting Ramirez's request would be a step toward enabling federal courts to "micromanage" details of execution protocol.

In some cases, states still employing capital punishment have made adjustments to comply with court orders regarding spiritual advisers.

In February, for example, the Supreme Court blocked Alabama from executing Willie Smith III—convicted of the 1991 abduction and murder of a 22-year-old woman—unless it allowed his personal pastor to be present in the execution chamber. Alabama complied; Smith was executed October 21 with the pastor, Robert Wiley, by his side.

Efforts to provide condemned prisoners with spiritual comfort at their executions have been ecumenical.

In 2019, the Supreme Court blocked Texas from executing a Buddhist prisoner unless he was allowed to have a Buddhist priest at his side. The same year, the high court allowed Alabama to execute a Muslim inmate, Domineque Ray, even though his spiritual adviser was not allowed to be present; the court said Ray was too late in making his request.

In the past year, Yusuf Nur, a Muslim professor of business who teaches at Indiana University Kokomo, was the spiritual adviser at two federal executions of Muslim inmates. He was present—and permitted to say a traditional Islamic prayer aloud—for the executions of Orlando Hall in November 2020 and Dustin Higgs in January 2021.

"When I first got recruited to talk to a young guy who accepted Islam in prison, I went to see him," Nur told AP. "My feeling was that if this person wants somebody to talk to, and the U.S. government is planning to execute him, I'd do whatever I can to contribute so they're spiritually strong."

Nur, who opposes capital punishment, said he was moved by the atmosphere in the death chamber for Hall's execution, given that the others present were "people who came to execute him."

"To have a friendly face makes a difference to the person being executed," Nur said. "I'm glad I did it even though it was traumatic to witness a human being killed right in front of your eyes. I would do it again."

Nur has shared his convictions with Battista, whose order—the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods—is based just 10 miles from the federal prison complex in Terre Haute. All four lethal injections she and Nur attended were part of the federal government's unprecedented run of 13 executions in six months at the end of the Trump administration.

Currently, Battista, 64, is deeply engaged in anti-racism activities, but she was often on the front line in vigils outside the prison protesting recent federal executions. She's grateful to have had the opportunity to accompany Nelson and a second condemned man, William Emmett LeCroy, at their executions last year.

"Yes, I had some doubts. ... but I know that through my prayer, my interaction with these men, I was there for them," she said. "That person deserves to have somebody with them who is the face of love."

In LeCroy's case, Battista said he asked her to pray for him, and she informed the executioner that she would be doing so—aloud.

The prayer was the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Its closing passage includes the words "Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless...look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent."