Religious Liberty for the Condemned: On Kenny Smith and Us

Religious Liberty for the Condemned: On Kenny Smith and Us December 24, 2023

Religious Liberty for the Condemned: Kenny Smith and Us


To the disappointment of many of his disciples, Jesus was not a conquering king.  Indeed, his ministry was never about forcing people to believe anything at all.  The ministry of Jesus was always about invitation rather than subjugation.  Repeatedly, people even walked away from Jesus and decided to no longer believe.  Followers of Jesus were there because they wanted to be.  Such is the essence of faith…choice.  Faith without choice isn’t faith…it’s mental enslavement.  Such enslavement always leads to death…death by innumerable instances of denied choices.  There is only one way to love one’s neighbor as one loves themself…by letting them be free.


For over a decade, I’ve worked with guys on death rows throughout the country.  In the past year alone, I’ve accompanied four guys to their executions…Scott Eizember in Oklahoma, Arthur Brown in Texas, Anthony Sanchez in Oklahoma and Casey McWhorter in Alabama.  There is tremendous danger in functioning in ministry so close to the tentacles of the state.  You always have to be cautious about what the state is trying to take away.  It has been my experience that the state is willing to take away all rights of religious liberty that are not demanded by force.  The beauty of the first lines of the First Amendment…“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” are constantly realized through our demands that they be protected.  On at least three different occasions this year, I have pursued formal legal action to demand that government protect the religious liberty of the guys on death row that I work with and myself.  These actions have been important to me because we must protect the rights of all in order to protect the rights of some.  Meaning, all of our rights are intrinsically wrapped up in the rights of each other…even those that we have condemned to be executed.  Indeed, it seems that those we’ve condemned to be executed are the baseline for the protection of all of our rights.


To this end, I filed a lawsuit last week against John Hamm (Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections) & Terry Raybon (Warden of Holman Correctional Facility) demanding that the new nitrogen hypoxia execution process that Alabama has created to execute Kenn Smith not be conducted in a way that violates the religious liberty of Smith or myself.  I did so to protect the religious liberty of Smith and all that might be executed by nitrogen hypoxia who come after him.  There are those who declare that such lawsuits are all about stopping executions.  To such naysayers, I will never apologize if the work that I do saves someone’s life.  I am intrinsically opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances.  If my fight to protect the rights of the guys that I work with saves a life, thank God.  First and foremost however, the religious liberty lawsuits I’ve pursued have been about fighting for the realization of the dignity of the condemned and consequently, the dignity of us all.  Indeed, our rights are secured by securing the rights of those whose rights are the most vulnerable to being dismissed.  Smith is the baseline for all of our rights.


Had it been necessary, I was prepared to take our lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court and wherever else might be necessary.  It wasn’t necessary.  Two nights ago, Warden Terry Raybon approved the original religious plan that Kenny Smith and I submitted over a month ago.  This action means that the State of Alabama has agreed to all of the religious liberty requests we made in the first place.  If the execution of Smith happens, it will be conducted in a way that honors his religious liberty.  The lawsuit has secured Smith’s religious liberty and those who might come after him.  Such a victory did not manifest based on simply asking…it came based on the force of pursuing legal action.  Religious liberty is seldom surrendered without force…particularly for those who are scheduled to be executed.  I’m very proud that we’ve won this round…but the development is of course bittersweet.


I released the following statement immediately after I found out about the resolution of our lawsuit:


“Wow. The State of Alabama seems willing to do whatever it takes to execute Kenneth Smith. Late yesterday, the State sent word that it had agreed to all of the religious liberty requests contained in my lawsuit. If Kenneth is executed, I will be able to share the Eucharist with him before he enters the chamber, anoint his head with oil when I enter the chamber and place my hands on him while praying and reading scripture during the execution process. To accommodate such actions, the State has agreed to not place the mask on Kenneth’s face until the anointing of oil is completed. While I know that this huge victory will not save Kenneth’s life or make the execution chamber any safer for me, I do take some solace in the fact that my efforts have secured his religious liberty and the religious liberty of all who might be executed in the future using nitrogen hypoxia. In the coming days, I will continue ministering to Kenneth, work to stop his execution and prepare my family for the very real possibility that I will not return from this execution if it goes forward.”


Religious liberty matters…and Kenny Smith’s have now been secured.  Now, it’s time to focus my/our *nonviolent efforts on trying to stop this execution.  If we don’t…then we’re all condemned.



""Don't you dare turn your head!"Or what? What possible influence do you think you have ..."

Don’t Turn Your Head: Aaron Bushnell ..."
"And what good did this accomplish? Who did he save? Another life gone. Traumatizing everyone ..."

Don’t Turn Your Head: Aaron Bushnell ..."
"It is a common human emotion to identify with any who suffer – especially with ..."

Don’t Turn Your Head: Aaron Bushnell ..."

Browse Our Archives