CNA Staff, Jul 14, 2020 / 15:01 pm
The chief judge of a federal district court in Indiana denied Tuesday a motion to delay the execution of Dustin Honken, which is scheduled to take place Friday, until a treatment or vaccine for coronavirus is widely available.
Fr. Mark O'Keefe, OSB, filed the motion for an injunction, asking that the execution be delayed so he could fulfill his “sacred religious duty to minister Mr. Honken at his execution” while not risking his own “life and health.”
Jane Magnus-Stinson, chief judge of the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, denied the motion July 14, saying it was unlikely that O'Keefe could successfully argue that the execution would violate his religious freedom rights, as well as procedural rights.
Edward Wallace, an attorney for Fr. O'Keefe, responded that “The First Amendment bars the federal government from burdening an individual’s exercise of his religion unless there is a compelling government interest. Today’s ruling ignores the fact that there is no legitimate government interest in forcing a priest to choose between fulfilling his sacred duties and protecting his own and others’ lives and health.”
Wallace added that the executions of Honken and another inmate, Wesley Purkey, should not be carried out “in the midst of a global pandemic and a burgeoning outbreak in the federal prison population.”
Honken was convicted of the murder of five people, including a single mother and her two daughters aged ten and six years old, in 2004. His execution is scheduled July 17.
The motion to delay the executions were filed by Fr. O'Keefe and by Dale Hartkemeyer, who is the Buddhist minister to Purkey. They asserted that the scheduled executions put them at “serious personal risk due to potential exposure to the coronavirus,” and thus violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The Department of Justice argued that while the ministers' “sincerely held religious beliefs require them to attend to the spiritual needs” of the inmates as they face execution, it “has imposed no substantial burden on the plaintiffs' free exercise of those beliefs because the plaintiffs are 'not themselves the subject of government regulation.'” It added that the supposed impediment to the scheduled execution, the pandemic, “is not one of the Government's making.”