Death Penalty

Supreme Court Rejects Stay of Execution for Alabama Inmate After Imam Not Allowed in Chamber

The Alabama prison allows a Christian chaplain in the execution chamber to pray with death row inmates, but it refused to let an imam inside.



The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a 5–4 decision to let Alabama to move forward with an execution after state prison officials refused to allow a condemned Muslim inmate access to an imam in his last moments.

Ruling that the inmate, Dominique Ray, had waited too long to file his petition for relief, the Court's conservative majority reversed a stay on the upcoming execution imposed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal appellate court halted the execution Thursday after finding that there was a substantial likelihood that Ray's First Amendment rights had been violated when officials refused to let his imam be present in the execution chamber.

Alabama officials appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court that same day.

The Alabama prison typically allows a Christian chaplain, also a prison employee, in the execution chamber, where the chaplain may stand near inmates and pray with them. But for security reasons the prison does not allow non-employees into the chamber, and it refused to make an exception for Ray's imam.

Justice Elena Kagan, in a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, wrote that "given the gravity of the issue presented here, I think [the majority's] decision profoundly wrong." She continued (citation omitted):

"The clearest command of the Establishment Clause," this Court has held, "is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another." But the State's policy does just that. Under that 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.

Ray was sentenced to death for the 1995 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl.