Alabama kept an imam from joining a Muslim death row inmate in the execution chamber. Now the Islamic religious leader is taking the state to federal court, claiming civil rights violations.
(CN) — An imam filed a federal lawsuit against Alabama on Thursday for barring him from accompanying a Muslim death row inmate during his 2019 execution.
“It is the obligation of the state of Alabama to treat people of all faiths equally. In this case, for decades, the state of Alabama provided a Christian chaplain to people that were being executed,” said Gadeir Abbas, one of the imam’s attorneys, at a press conference Thursday. “When it first arose that a Muslim, a person who was not Christian, was requesting religious support in the execution chamber, the state of Alabama balked at it, they opposed it, and they litigated it all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Domineque Ray was sentenced to death in 1999 by a Selma jury for raping a 15-year-old girl and stabbing her to death four years prior. At the time of the trial, Ray had already been sentenced to life in prison for murdering two teenaged brothers in 1994.
On Feb.7, 2019 — two decades after the jury delivered its verdict — the state killed Ray via lethal injection at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. None of Ray’s family members attended the execution. His imam, Yusef Maisonet, watched from an adjacent room, from behind glass.
Maisonet’s exclusion from the execution chamber apparently came as a surprise to Ray. A few weeks before, the prison warden walked Ray through the execution procedures and explained that the prison’s chaplain, a Protestant Christian, would remain in the room with Ray and could pray by his side if requested.
Ray asked that the Christian chaplain stay out of the room and Maisonet join him instead, but the warden and the chaplain denied his requests, citing Alabama Department of Corrections policy.
Five days later, Ray filed a federal civil rights complaint in the Middle District of Alabama, alleging Alabama’s policies unfairly provided religious accommodations to Christian death row inmates but not inmates of other faiths.
The lawsuit was dismissed by the district judge. On appeal, the 11th Circuit granted Ray’s emergency stay of execution. In his order for the appellate court, U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote that “Ray has provided an altogether plausible explanation for why the claims were not filed in district court sooner.”
In a threadbare decision, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, ruling 5-4 in Alabama’s favor. The high court lifted the stay of Ray’s execution, finding that he waited too long to file his lawsuit — five days after his meeting with the prison warden and 10 days before his scheduled execution date.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent, which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
“Under [Alabama’s] policy, a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites,” Kagan wrote. “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.”
This is the core of the legal argument Maisonet presented in his lawsuit, filed Thursday in Mobile federal court. Local attorney Henry Brewster filed the lawsuit, which was also signed by attorneys from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a nonprofit civil liberties advocacy group headquartered in Washington that litigates on Muslim Americans’ behalf.
In a virtual press conference CAIR held Thursday, Maisonet said that Ray’s was the first execution he had witnessed.
“I was able to observe the execution, but it was something hard to see, a Muslim die with the state of Alabama [denying] him his rights, to be able to die within his religious beliefs,” Maisonet said over a video call broadcast on YouTube. “It ain’t like Islam is a new religion, Islam is 1,400 [years old] and change. We’ve been going through this for as long as I can remember.”
Abbas, CAIR senior litigation attorney, said that Alabama has since barred all death row inmates from being joined by a religious figure in the execution chamber.
“In the wake of international outrage that Alabama’s decision created, the state of Alabama said, ‘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,” he said.
Abbas said that Maisonet was again excluded from the execution of Nathaniel Woods in March 2020. Local news reports say that the imam was asked to wait outside a hotel to be driven to the execution but was not informed that a temporary stay of execution had delayed the procedure, so he went home before prison officials called more than three and a half hours later than expected. A state spokesperson said at the time that the imam had left of his own accord.
“This case is about the religious liberty of all people — of imams to carry out their religious beliefs and tending to those that society has decided to kill and to the least fortunate,” Abbas said. “With a policy such as Alabama had in 2019, and as Alabama has today, that interferes with Imam Maisonet’s ability to minister.”
An Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson declined a request for an interview, citing “respect for the legal process.”
Maisonet names five Alabama Department of Corrections officials, including the Christian chaplain, as defendants in the lawsuit. He asks the court to require Alabama to permit religious leaders into the execution chamber when requested by a death row inmate. The imam alleges violations of the First Amendment’s establishment clause and its free exercise clause and also says the policy violates the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment.