Execution Chaplain features rare sighting of 1990s left-right Coalition for Religious Freedom
Religion Unplugged believes in a diversity of well-reasoned and well-researched opinions. This article reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent those of Religion Unplugged, its employees and contributors.
(OPINION) Before King Charles I laid his hands on the chopping block, he turned to his chaplain to seek personal peace after the chaos of the English Civil Wars.
The king contemplated heaven, hell, and forgiveness on that infamous day of 1649.
“To show you that I am a good Christian,” said the king, pointing to Bishop William Juxon of London, “I hope there is a good man who will testify to me that I have forgiven the whole world, and even those in particular were the main contributors to my death. God knows who they are, I don’t want to know. God forgive them.”
This is not the kind of theology that normally informs US Supreme Court decisions. Still, it was part of a litany of historical references during debates leading up to a recent decision that required Texas to grant a convicted murderer the audible prayers and comforting touches of its Baptist pastor during his execution.
This was a rare moment when activists on both sides of America’s culture wars hailed “religious freedom,” a freedom that, until recently, did not require cynical quotes of fear suggesting insecurity. This trend in First Amendment discourse has become, for me, the most important story I’ve covered in the third century—since this week when I wrote that national column, On Religion.
The big question: Why did the appeal to centuries-old traditions work this time?
Convicted prisoner, John Ramirez, told the court he believes that the “laying on of hands by his pastor when he dies and the vocalization of prayer and scripture will support his transition from life to death and guide his path to the afterlife.” . ”
In his ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts hailed the “rich history” of evidence supporting this prisoner’s request “to have his pastor lay hands on him and pray for him during the execution.” Both are traditional forms of religious practice.”
Obviously, “history and tradition are really important when it comes to civil rights,” noted Eric Rassbach, senior counsel at Becket, a law firm that focuses on religious liberty cases. For starters, Texas officials were at odds with George Washington, he told reporters on an online forum.
The Becket briefing – by Professor Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School and Josh McDaniel of Harvard Law School’s Religious Freedom Clinic – argued: “Our nation has an unbroken history of allowing these very practices before, during and after incorporation. Indeed, if an ounce of history is worth a pound of doctrine, then there’s a pound of history on offer here – from the executions of deserters during the Revolutionary War… to the executions by the army of Nazi war criminals after the Nuremberg trials. “
A grand conservative coalition submitted similar arguments, including the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Anglican Church of North America, the Rutherford Institute, the Southern Baptist Convention, the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, and others.
However, American Civil Liberties Union religious liberties expert Daniel Mach also released a solemn statement: “Texas has given no valid reason for denying Mr. Ramirez’s reasoned request for basic religious accommodations during the execution. This welcome decision will help him find spiritual comfort in his final moments.”
Unity of this sort was common as late as the 1990s and the landmark 97-3 vote by the US Senate in support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But church-government activists are now finding it much easier to acquiesce in corroborating First Amendment claims by prisoners than religious believers — think bakers, photographers and florists — who are reluctant to put the teachings of the sexual revolution into words and to affirm actions.
The celebrations of the Ramirez case “encompassed what the case was NOT about,” said philosopher Francis Beckwith, who also teaches Papal Studies at Baylor University. “It didn’t focus on any of the culture war issues that have dominated American politics for the past several decades.”
“Counseling prayers with a prisoner facing death is the perfect example of what most people consider religious acts,” Beckwith said. “This case is about a man who is at the end of his life, a moment when he is at his most vulnerable.”
Church-state struggles over “weddings, however, have become so important and symbolic because it is here that secularism has begun to lay claim to matters that have been deeply religious for centuries. … At this point, some religious traditions and teachings are more popular than others.”
Terry Mattingly writes this weekly “About Religion” Column for the Universal Syndicate. Republished with permission of the author.