In the News: Prison Chaplains

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Alabama to execute a Muslim inmate who had filed a legal challenge after prison officials told him he could only have a Christian chaplain present in the execution chamber—but not a Muslim imam.

Domineque Ray’s lawyers had argued that the prison’s policy violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. (The policy actually required a Christian chaplain to be present; Alabama later agreed to exempt the chaplain from attending, but still refused to allow an imam to take his place.) After the federal District Court denied Ray’s motion, the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted an emergency stay of execution, finding that it was “substantially likely” that the policy was unconstitutional:

The central constitutional problem here is that the state has regularly placed a Christian cleric in the execution room to minister to the needs of Christian inmates, but has refused to provide the same benefit to a devout Muslim and all other non-Christians. … In the absence of a stay, Ray will die without the benefit, available to Christian inmates, of sharing his final moments with a cleric who shares his faith and who will be able to provide prayer, spiritual support and comfort at the moment of death.

Alabama subsequently appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court vacated the stay—claiming that Ray had waiting too long to raise this concern—thus clearing the way for Ray to be executed. Justice Kagan, in her dissent, described the Court’s decision as “profoundly wrong”:

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.

Justice Kagan also shared the Eleventh Circuit’s perspective that Ray would not have known about the policy until his conversation with the warden just days before he filed his motion, as state law said nothing about a Christian chaplain, and the prison refused to provide a copy of its policy.

Separate from the issue of the chaplain, Ray had also complained to the District Court that after he was moved to the death row cell, the prison had denied him access to a Qurʾān. The morning after his motion was filed, the prison provided him with a Qurʾān.

The SHARIAsource Portal contains full text and concise summaries of numerous U.S. court decisions related to religious accommodations for prisoners. Click here to read more.