Time after time, courts have demanded religious neutrality from the state, whether in the context of schools, government programs, or religious displays. Research shows that the American legal system privileges conservative Christianity, and that Muslims are currently the most underserved religious group in American prisons. While Muslims comprise 1% of the US population, Muslims make up 9% of incarcerated peoples. Recently, the US State of Alabama executed a Muslim inmate after the Supreme Court dismissed his appeal for an imam to be present with him at death. Domineque Hakim Ray was killed via lethal injection on February 7th, 2019 at a state prison in Atmore. While the state of Alabama has a Christian chaplain enter the room with inmates, Imam Yusuf Maisonet was ordered to watch from an adjacent room.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeal had acknowledged that Ray had a “powerful” claim against the state, because the state “refused to provide the same benefit to a devout Muslim and all other non-Christians.” However the Alabama Department of Corrections, which had employed a Christian chaplain for over twenty years, refused to allow a non-employee to enter the chambers with an inmate due to “security” risks.” Imam Yusuf Maisonet visited the prison facilities on a monthly basis (passing all security checks) to connect with and advise ten inmates. Robert Durham, of the Death Penalty Information Centre, stated that US states generally allow spiritual advisers to accompany inmates up to but not into execution chambers. Additionally, Durham notes that Alabama is the only state where execution protocol calls for a Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chambers.
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled 5 to 4 in Alabama’s favour. The Supreme Court cited the last-minute nature of Ray’s request as reason for the decision. In the Supreme Court’s dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the Establishment Clause makes it clear one religious denomination cannot be preferred over another. Alabama’s treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational preference. Kagan further argued that the State offered no evidence that the “wholesale prohibition on outside spiritual advisers” is necessary to achieve that goal. The imam could, for example pledge—under penalty of contempt—that he will not interfere with the State’s ability to perform the execution. Ray’s request for an imam was denied on January 23rd, and his complaint was filed five days later. Furthermore, the prison had refused to give Ray a copy of its practices and procedures, so Ray could not have foreseen that an imam would be granted less access than a Christian chaplain to his execution chambers. Instead of genuinely considering Ray’s claim, the Court accelerates judicial review so the State can meet its preferred execution date.
This post was written by a CCLA-PBSC Rights Watch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCLA or PBSC.