Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

FFRF to Supreme Court: Get rid of death penalty

Vol. 38 No. 09 November 2021

Abolish capital punishment, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its allies are asking the U.S. Supreme Court.

FFRF’s friend-of-the-court brief on Sept. 27 in the Ramirez v. Collier case (which deals with religious access) argues that the death penalty is unjustified in a secular nation such as the United States, since it stems in part from biblical roots, and is unconstitutional under the First and Eighth Amendments.

Ramirez v. Collier has been in the news recently because of the Supreme Court’s seeming willingness to make a religious allowance for the death-row inmate.

The Supreme Court agreed to postpone the execution of John Ramirez, who was scheduled to die on Wednesday [Sept. 8] in Texas,” reports SCOTUSblog. “The last-minute respite will allow the justices to fully consider Ramirez’s request that his pastor be allowed to physically touch Ramirez and audibly pray in the execution chamber while Ramirez is put to death.”

FFRF’s brief asserts that the issue before the court is Kafkaesque because the law is quibbling over Ramirez’s constitutional rights moments before it takes them away forever. Also, if there is going to be an execution, FFRF maintains, any rule the court hands down should apply to the nonreligious.

The brief makes a number of cogently argued points.

First, it contends, the Supreme Court should hold that capital punishment is unconstitutional, since the current application of the death penalty as a punishment in America is fraught with peril — from its unreliability to its arbitrariness to its cruelty. And of all the ways a state could impermissibly interfere with someone’s free exercise of religion, killing them is certainly the worst way. 

Second, FFRF asserts that the biblically based death penalty should be rejected once and for all. While the root of capital punishment may not be solely biblical, in the Western world the bible’s primitive “eye for an eye, life for a life” injunctions in both the Hebrew and New Testament bibles have been a major sourcebook for the death penalty. The Christian church, in particular, “has played a significant role in validating the state’s use of capital punishment,” as scholar Davison M. Douglas points out. 

Third, FFRF’s brief posits that if executions are allowed to take place, end-of-life accommodations must be equally available. A long string of unbroken precedent holds that neither may the government officially favor one religion over another nor may it favor religion over nonreligion. If the court chooses to allow state-sponsored killings to continue, it must ensure that end-of-life accommodations are made equally available to those of all religions and those with no religion at all.

FFRF’s interest in this case arises from its position that capital punishment is an unconstitutional, inhumane imposition of a religiously based punishment. In modern times, freethinkers have been the first to speak out for the abolition of the death penalty. The overwhelming majority of FFRF’s membership opposes the death penalty, according to its 2020 survey.

FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert and FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne drafted the amicus brief for the organization. The American Humanist Association and American Atheists are the other groups that have joined in FFRF’s brief.