March 2019 Church & State Magazine - March 2019

Supreme Court Denies Alabama Inmate’s Request For Imam

  Rob Boston

The Supreme Court Feb. 7 refused to intervene in a case from Alabama concerning a Muslim prison inmate on death row whose request to have an imam with him in the execution chamber was denied.

Domineque Ray’s request was not unusual, as death-row inmates are routinely given access to clergy and spiritual counselors. However, officials at Holeman Correctional Facility said they would only allow the prison’s own Christian chaplain to be present in the room during the execution.

Ray had sought a stay of execution while the matter was resolved. A lower court agreed with him, but the Supreme Court, ruling 5-4 in Dunn v. Ray, reversed and said that Ray was not entitled to a stay because he filed his request too late.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for three other justices (Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) criticized the court majority for giving preference to Christianity.

Kagan said the prison’s policy “goes against the [First Amendment’s] core principle of denominational neutrality.”

Added Kagan, “Why couldn’t Ray’s imam receive whatever training in execution protocol the Christian chaplain received? The State has no answer. Why wouldn’t it be sufficient for the imam to pledge, under penalty of contempt, that he will not interfere with the State’s ability to perform the execution? The State doesn’t say.”      

Ray, who was convicted of raping and murdering a teen­age girl in 1995, was executed by lethal injection a few hours after the high court’s decision. His imam was allowed to attend but had to remain outside the execution chamber.

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