Alabama executed a man on Thursday but only after a battle over religious rights stemming from the Muslim man’s request to have an imam present for the end of his life.
Domineque Hakim Marcelle Ray was convicted of killing a 15-year-old girl nearly two decades ago, and handed the death penalty by a jury, but that act itself was delayed due to his claims of religious discrimination. He had asked that his imam be present in the execution chamber, instead of the Christian chaplain who traditionally presides over these matters on behalf of the state’s Department of Corrections.
A federal appeals court stayed the execution, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it with a 5-4 vote.
Attorneys for the state said Ray had ample opportunity to visit with his imam before his scheduled execution, that only prison employees are allowed in the chamber for security reasons, and that the imam can visit him before he’s led to the execution chamber and witness the execution from an adjoining room.
Prison system spokesman Bob Horton said Ray was visited by his imam both Wednesday and Thursday and that Ray again renewed a request to have the adviser present — the request that has been denied.
It’s hardly a troubling request. Much like giving a man on death row a last meal of his choosing, allowing him to have a representative of his faith by his side shouldn’t be a controversial request. The fact that a Christian chaplain was available by default speaks to the notion that “religious freedom” only applies to those in the Christian majority.
Even more problematic was how the state said the Christian chaplain would have to remain in the room even after the imam had been denied. It wasn’t enough to say no to his religious request; they wanted to push a different religious figure on him in the moments before he died. (They eventually relented on that, so the chaplain wasn’t in the execution chamber, either.)
Imagine if the tables were turned and a Christian prisoner was denied the presence of a pastor — but, hey, there’s an imam here who’ll help you out — and you can imagine the apoplectic reactions from conservatives.
Ultimately, the conservatives on the Supreme Court allowed the appalling decision to stand on the grounds that the state’s policy only allowed employees of the ADOC to be in the execution chamber. That’s neutral, they argued (even though the state only happens to employ Christian chaplains…).
Justice Elena Kagan rejected the majority’s decision and said in a dissenting opinion that the published ruling was “profoundly wrong.” She also hit the nail on the head in general.
“Under [the state’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. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality,” she wrote.
There’s a separate discussion to be had about the death penalty itself. But for now, the whole notion of “religious freedom” that conservatives talk about so much was thrown out at the very moment someone made a request that didn’t fit a particular Christian path. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a convicted killer, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be disturbed by the basic rights a citizen was denied in the final moments of his life.