Muslim prisoner in Alabama executed, denied right to imam

By Brian Williams
March 4, 2019

In a ruling reinforcing religious discrimination, the U.S. Supreme Court Feb. 7 gave the state of Alabama the go-ahead to execute Muslim prisoner Domineque Ray, denying his request to have his imam by his side at the time of his death.

“Domineque was a devout Muslim and a human being,” Spencer Hahn, one of Ray’s attorneys, wrote in a statement. “He wanted equal treatment in his last moments.”

Ray, 42, had been on death row for the past 20 years, after being convicted for the killing of a 15-year-old girl. In November 2018 the state of Alabama announced he would be executed in February.

In a meeting with the prison warden Jan. 23, Ray was told that the prison chaplain, a Protestant Christian minister, was going to be in the execution chamber during his death. Officials claimed that as an employee of the prison system, he was “a member of the execution team.” Ray requested that his imam be present instead, which state authorities rejected, claiming “safety” and “security” concerns.

Five days later Ray filed a lawsuit saying the prison’s policy violated federal laws barring religious discrimination and the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

On Feb. 6, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals based in Atlanta stayed the execution, saying that Ray made a “powerful” claim to discrimination and that the court should be allowed to hear and decide the case.

“It looks substantially likely to us that Alabama has run afoul of the establishment clause,” the court ruled, adding there is “no principle more elemental to the establishment clause than that the state and the federal government shall not favor one religious denomination over another.”

Alabama officials appealed this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court the same day, arguing that executions must be conducted “in an orderly and secure fashion.”

The Supreme Court justices agreed. In a 5-4 vote Feb. 7 the high court vacated the stay, opening the door for the execution, which took place two hours after the ruling. Their two-paragraph opinion said nothing about the question of religious discrimination. The black-robed justices argued instead that Ray had taken too long — until Jan. 28 — “to seek relief.”

The court ruling ignored the fact that Ray had learned that the prison would not allow the imam to be present with him in the death chamber just five days earlier.

Calling the court’s ruling “profoundly wrong,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion that under Alabama state 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.”

When state prison officials moved Ray from his cell to the death watch area a few days before the execution, they denied him the right to take his Quran with him. Ray sued against this violation of his rights also, and a U.S. District Court judge ordered state officials to give him a Quran. They decided not to fight this decision and provided him with one.

Many opponents of religious discrimination across the political spectrum spoke out against the court’s decision to allow prison authorities to refuse Ray’s request to have his imam at his execution. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement saying Alabama’s actions were “a clear violation of his right to freedom of religion.”

And Seth Mandel, executive editor of the Washington Examiner  magazine, said, “As a conservative who opposes both the death penalty and religious discrimination I find this story appalling.”