Is only offering a Christian pastor to a condemned Muslim man just?

Is only offering a Christian pastor to a condemned Muslim man just? March 12, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court on February 7 refused to allow a Muslim death-row inmate in Alabama to have an imam, an Islamic cleric, with him when he was executed by lethal injection a few hours later.

murder alabama execution islam
June 8, 2015, cover of Time magazine. (BethelCT, Flikr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

So Dominique Ray, a black American Muslim, died alone, without the prison-employed Protestant chaplain at his side as is standard protocol at executions in Alabama. State authorities, in what was termed a “concession,” did accommodate Ray’s request that a Christian pastor not be in attendance for his death in the execution chamber .

The prisoner’s imam, Yusef Maisonet, who had ministered to Ray the prior two days, was only allowed to view the execution from an adjoining room, according to a story in the Huffingtington Post.

Execution request too late?

What was the high court’s rationale for rejecting Dominique Ray’s request at Holeman Correctional Facility? The condemned man’s January 28 request was too late in the process to be entertained, the court said.

Really? This is how a civilized, humane nation operates?

I am an atheist, and the 42-year-old Ray was by all accounts an awful human being — he was convicted of raping and murdering Tiffany Harville, 15, in 1995 — but, still, it’s clear that denying him his simple final request was morally and ethically fraught.

In what likely further antagonized prison authorities already nonplussed by the unusual Muslim request, when asked if he had any final words as he lay strapped to the execution gurney in the death chamber Ray recited an Islamic statement of faith, in Arabic.

Constitutionally legal, of course, this being America.

On Feb. 6, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had stayed Ray’s execution to give time for his religious request to play out, but the Supreme Court then voted narrowly, 5-4, to reject the request and allow the execution to proceed.

Supreme Court justice on Alabama case: ‘profoundly wrong’

The Post reported that Justice Elena Kagan, in a dissenting opinion, contended that the decision was “profoundly wrong.” Kagan, writing for the three other dissenting jurists, criticized the majority “for giving preference to Christianity” in defiance of the Constitution, according to Church & State, the e-zine of the secular group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Kagan opined that the prison’s policy that only allows a Christian pastor at executions “goes against the [First Amendment’s] core principle of denominational neutrality.”

Although other states generally allow religious advisors to accompany condemned prisoners up to but not into execution rooms, capital punishment expert Robert Dunham told the Post he knew of no other states whose rules require a Christian chaplain to be present in the room during execution procedures. Dunham is executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which studies capital punishment issues.

Ray’s objection to the presence of a Christian chaplain at his execution was the first the state had received, Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said, adding that procedures will be reviewed to see if any changes are necessary.

‘An eye for an eye’ justice

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall expressed an “eye for an eye” ethos when the high court ruled to let Ray’s execution go forward.

“For 20 years, Domineque Ray has successfully eluded execution for the barbaric murder of a 15-year-old Selma girl …” Marshal said. “Tonight, Ray’s long-delayed appointment with justice is finally met.”

Legal justice, perhaps. Moral justice, not so much.

Even awful people who have committed depraved acts deserve appropriately equal treatment under the Constitution.

What would it have cost Alabama or the nation to allow a convicted felon simply to have an imam at his side at his execution, no matter how despicable a character the condemned was during his life?

What Alabama did was take the low road, adding a moral affront to a terrible crime.

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