Those sentenced to death may be assisted in their last moments by a Christian chaplain only, even if they belong to another religion. Muslims protest.
by Alessandro Amicarelli
Last week, Imam Yusef Maisonet sued five members of the State of Alabama’s Department of Correction, including a Christian chaplain, over a policy that excludes Muslim religious figures from being present in the execution chamber when Islamic prisoners are executed.
Maisonet became well-known in Alabama when Domeneque Ray, a Muslim, was sentenced to death for having raped and killed a 15-year-old girl. A few weeks before the date scheduled for the execution, February 2, 2019, a prison warden told Ray that, if he so desired, a Protestant Christian prison chaplain would remain and pray with him in the death room. Ray objected that he was a devout Muslim, not a Christian, and indicated Imam Maisonet as the religious counselor he would like to have with him. His request was denied, citing Alabama Department of Correction’s long-standing policy.
Ray sued the Department of Correction’s Commissioner before the Middle District of Alabama, asking that Maisonet rather than the Christian chaplain should be allowed to remain with him at the time of the execution, but lost. On appeal, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit granted Ray’s request for a stay of the execution.
The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in a 5-4 decision that Ray had waited too long to file his case—five days after he was told only Protestant chaplains are allowed in Alabama’s execution rooms, and 10 days before his scheduled execution date—and the stay was vacated. By insisting on the technical argument of the delays, Ray v. Dunn did not address the substantial question whether allowing representatives of only one religion, Protestant Christianity, to assist prisoners during their executions violated Constitutional principles. On February 7, 2019, Ray was executed, with Imam Maisonet only allowed to look from an adjacent room through a glass.
In fact, later in the same year 2019, the Supreme Court decided for a stay of the execution of a Buddhist man in Texas, where a similar law would have allowed him to be assisted only by a Christian or Muslim adviser. In Texas, similar requests by Muslims were accommodated, but not by Buddhists.
In 2020, however, Maisonet was again prevented from accompanying another Alabama Muslim prisoner to his death, although in this case there may have been some miscommunication between the imam and the authorities about the exact time of the execution.
Maisonet is now suing to win once and for all the right for Muslim spiritual advisers to be in the execution room when their parishioners request their presence. One of his lawyers, Gadeir Abbas, said in a press conference that Alabama is now considering excluding from the executions all religious advisers, rather than allowing Muslim imams inside. “In the wake of international outrage that Alabama’s decision created,” the attorney said, the State of Alabama vowed that, “Rather than allow condemned men of any faith, including Muslims on Alabama’s death row, to have a religious advisor in the death chamber with them at the time of execution, we’re going to exclude all religious advisors,’ including the Christian chaplain that they had on staff.”
This is not what Maisonet wants. He believes that all prisoners sentenced to death have the right to have in the execution room a minister of their religion.
As a country advocating religious freedom throughout the world, the United States should not allow discrimination to happen in Alabama, or in any other U.S. state. In American jails, including on death rows, equal rights should be granted to inmates and religious counselors of all faiths.
Update (February 15, 2021): On February 11, 2021, in Dunn v. Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the new Alabama policy of excluding all religious advisers from the execution room (rather than allowing non-Protestant ones, which it should have done under the previous Supreme Court decision in Murphy v. Collier, the case involving a Buddhist from Texas), and stated that prisoners sentenced to death have the right to be accompanied by a religious adviser of their choice.