SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

To cut to the chase: I have just returned from a long eye exam (things are OK) and focusing on a computer screen is not going to be easy for several hours.

So let’s make this a quick post. OK?

What we have here is your basic Washington Post law-and-politics story, one running under the headline: “Last-minute execution decisions expose wide and bitter rift at Supreme Court.”

The death penalty is, of course, a hot-button issue linked to debates involving religion and morality, as well as political and legal realities. Here is the opening of this report:

The Supreme Court meets in private to decide last-minute pleas from death-row inmates to stop their executions, and what happens behind the maroon velvet curtains often stays behind the maroon velvet curtains.

But that changed Monday, with justices issuing a flurry of explanations and recriminations on cases decided weeks ago. The writings named names and exposed a bitter rift among members of the court on one of the most emotional and irreversible decisions they make.

Decisions on last-minute stays usually come with only a minimum of reasoning. But three justices issued a set-the-record-straight opinion that took aim at one of Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissents from a month ago. Breyer had said that the court’s conservatives deviated from “basic principles of fairness” in refusing to take more time to consider the plea of an Alabama murderer, Christopher Lee Price, who had asked to be executed by inhaling nitrogen gas rather than risk a “botched” lethal injection.

“There is nothing of substance to these assertions,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch. They said that Breyer’s reasoning, which was joined by the court’s three other liberals, “does not withstand even minimal legal scrutiny.”

Now, since my eyes are under the weather, let’s let GetReligion readers look through this story through a media-criticism lens.

This story contains a lot of religion, since the court cases here involve Buddhist and Muslim prisoners and their First Amendment rights. Think religious liberty issues, without the “scare quotes.”

But note that the justices at the heart of these arguments include Thomas and Alito., as well as Chief Justice John Roberts and the new Justice Kavanaugh. Looming in the background is former Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Now, what do these public intellectuals have in common (other than being GOP men on the court)?

Hint, hint: These cases take place in the context of the death penalty (although that is not the real issue) and are clearly linked to the free exercise of religion.

Let’s look at another long passage containing lots of names:

Texas had allowed only state prison chaplains in the death chamber, and none were Buddhist.

“Five days after the Court granted a stay, Texas changed its unconstitutional policy, and it did so effective immediately,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Texas now allows all religious ministers only in the viewing room and not in the execution room.” Such a policy “should alleviate any future litigation delays or disruptions,” he said.

Kavanaugh’s view does not set a precedent but indicates that a majority of the court thinks that inmates’ religious needs must be respected and treated equally. In other words, if a Christian inmate has a right to a chaplain of his faith in the death chamber, so must a Muslim. Or spiritual advisers of all faiths may be banned.

Alito, Gorsuch and Thomas were not so sure that issue was closed. If Murphy, the Buddhist, were not in prison, “Texas could not tell him that the only cleric he could have at his side in the moments before death is one who is approved by the State,” Alito wrote.

“But this Court’s precedents hold that imprisonment necessarily imposes limitations on a prisoner’s constitutional rights.”

OK, readers: It’s very interesting — at least to me — that one specific word does not appear anywhere in this story.

Go to the comments pages please and Name That Word.

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