The execution of an Alabama inmate for the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl has raised questions of what religious freedoms inmates have.
Domineque Hakim Marcelle Ray was executed at the Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama on Feb. 7. The United States Supreme Court denied the stay of execution requested by Ray.
“On Nov. 6, 2018, the State scheduled Domineque Ray’s execution date for February 7, 2019. Because Ray waited until Jan. 28, 2019 to seek relief, we grant the State’s application to vacate the stay entered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit,” said Justice Elena Kagan in a dissenting court opinion.
The Holman Correctional Facility “regularly allows a Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chamber.” However, Ray was a Muslim convert and wished to have an imam, a Islamic religious leader, present at the execution.
“The prison refused his request to have an imam attend him in the last moments of his life,” Kagan said.
Alabama Department of Corrections policy currently only allows prison employees to be in the room at the time of a prisoner’s execution.
According to Religion News Service, the ADOC only employs Christian ministers in their prisons.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is now wondering if the prison’s policy was in violation of the First Amendment.
Kagan said in her dissent the warden denied Ray’s request to have his imam by his side on Jan. 23 and filed his request for a stay five days later, thus giving the state plenty of time to stay his execution.
In the opinion, Kagan said Ray was not informed in a timely manner that he would only be allowed to have a Christian chaplain in the execution chamber.
She says the state’s reasoning behind policy in the interest of safety is not grounds for them to deny Ray’s request to have a religious leader of his choice.
“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),” Kagan said.
According to Religion News Service, the American legal system’s clash with Muslims is not unique to the ADOC. Muslims make up only 1 percent of the U.S population, but prison chaplains say Muslims make up 9 percent of inmates.
“The religious group most commonly cited as being underserved by (religious) volunteers is Muslims,” according to Pew Research.
Analysts of religious freedom, regardless of religion, up in arms, according to a Washington Post article.
The Post quoted Southern Baptist minister Alan Cross in the article, who tweeted the morning after the execution.
Every time we want the state to favor Christianity over other religions, the result is a loss of religious freedom for all. “Alabama will now prohibit all spiritual advisers, including Holman's Christian prison chaplain, from the execution chamber…” https://t.co/Osz6y9ptME
— Alan Cross (@AlanLCross) February 8, 2019
“Every time we want the state to favor Christianity over other religions, the result is a loss of religious freedom for all,” Cross said.
The choice of preference of a spiritual leader during execution is not the only aspect of prison regulation in possible competition with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
“There are no exceptions granted for religious reasons,” according to an ADOC inmate handbook on dress code. “All displays of religious expressions, regarding clothing or accessories, are limited to the service areas during service times.”
According to The Washington Post, the ruling in Ray’s case may uncover some pitfalls in the understanding of religious freedom.
“Even if the Supreme Court’s decision in Ray’s case was based on a strict adherence to a rule, the decision may be remembered most for an absence of grace and mercy,” The Washington Post article said.