A serious challenge to the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion took place last week — and it happened at no place other than the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 5-4 vote Feb. 7, the High Court denied the request of a Muslim man, Domineque Ray, to have an imam present at his execution in the Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama. The stay of execution was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on Feb. 6.
The Supreme Court’s decision was not based on the argument that the constitution allows a chaplain of Ray’s own faith in attendance. Instead, the justices based their decision on Ray’s request for an imam being made too late. “Because Ray waited until Jan. 28, 2019, to seek relief, we grant the State’s application to vacate the stay …” the court said in its decision. A technicality to some, a cop-out to others.
The State of Alabama prohibits outside spiritual advisers for the sake of prison security. The Holman Correctional Facility regularly allows a Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chamber.
In her dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the state’s policy contradicted the First Amendment. She also said Ray’s request for an imam was issued in a timely manner.
“Under (Alabama’s) policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites. But if an inmate practices a different religion – whether Islam, Judaism, or any other – he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side,” she wrote. “That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality.”
Justice Kagan said that to justify this discrimination, Alabama needed to show a compelling interest. “But the state has offered no evidence to show that its wholesale prohibition on outside spiritual advisers is necessary to achieve that goal” of prison security, she said.
“Instead, this court short-circuits that ordinary process (of hearing the case) and itself rejects the claim with little briefing and no argument — just so the state can meet its preferred execution date,” wrote Justice Kagan.
Some people may argue that a prisoner on death row, who commits a heinous crime like Domineque Ray committed, does not deserve any rights. But that is not the way this nation operates. (It’s not how Christianity operates either.) It follows precepts and rules that help guide our daily lives, even when those rules benefit or serve the incarcerated.
The U.S. bishops — in a statement written by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, chairman of the USCCB Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development — also condemned the Supreme Court’s decision.
“This unjust treatment is disturbing to people of all faiths, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise,” the bishops continued. “People deserve to be accompanied in death by someone who shares their faith. It is especially important that we respect this right for religious minorities.”
The Supreme Court was wrong to deny Ray the protections of the U.S. Constitution. The same protections it offered in recent years to Christian businesses refusing to refuse customers or offer services based on their beliefs. In addition, Alabama must change its policy of not allowing non-Christian chaplains into the execution chamber to offer consolation and prayer to a prisoner at his moment of death.