Despite Alabama prisons allowing Christian ministers and spiritual advisors to attend executions, and despite a last-minute appeal from a Muslim death row inmate to have his imam accompany him at his execution, and despite the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision to stay his execution in order to hear his First Amendment arguments, the Supreme Court ordered the man’s execution yesterday.
Dominique Ray was put to death last night via lethal injection at a state prison in Atmore, without his imam present.
Religious Discrimination and the Death Penalty
But not all the Justices were happy with the decision. “‘The clearest command of the Establishment Clause,'” Justice Elena Kagan quoted in her dissent, “‘is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.'” The dissent, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, noted the discrepancy in allowing a Christian chaplain to be present in the execution chamber but prohibiting any other outside spiritual advisers. Kagan also pointed out that it was highly unusual for the Supreme Court to step in when a lower federal appeals court was already considering the matter:
This Court is ordinarily reluctant to interfere with the substantial discretion Courts of Appeals have to issue stays when needed … Here, Ray has put forward a powerful claim that his religious rights will be violated at the moment the State puts him to death. The Eleventh Circuit wanted to hear that claim in full. Instead, this Court short-circuits that ordinary process — and itself rejects the claim with little briefing and no argument — just so the State can meet its preferred execution date.
Death of the Death Penalty?
The liberal section of the Court, Justices Kagan and Sotomayor in particular, have been increasingly skeptical of state and federal death penalty implementation, questioning juries tainted by racial bias, standards used to determine whether inmates are too mentally disabled to be executed, and judicial authority to override jury verdicts in death penalty cases.