Pensacola, Florida
Sunday June 16th 2019


Outtakes—Religious Freedom

By Rick Outzen

The U.S. Supreme Court made a bad decision last week when it allowed the state of Alabama to discriminate based on religion.

On Thursday, Feb. 8, Alabama executed a Muslim inmate after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his request for a minister of his religion to be present while the lethal injection was administered. Death row inmates are allowed a Christian chaplain but not those of other religious faiths.

The state defended the Alabama Department of Corrections by arguing that only prison employees are allowed in the execution chamber for the security reasons, and the prison did not employ any imams.

The previous day, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Muslim inmate and stayed the execution, citing the state policy “touches at the heart of the Establishment Clause.”

The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause forbids the government from establishing an official religion and also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another.

Alabama requested the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling because its prohibition on the imam being in the room didn’t substantially burden the inmate’s religious freedom. The imam would be allowed to witness from one of the adjacent viewing rooms, separated from the execution chamber by two-way glass.

The Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling allowed the execution. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan voted to halt the execution while the legal fight went forward.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Kagan wrote that the “the clearest command of the Establishment Clause” that the Supreme Court has upheld over the years is that one religious denomination can’t be given preference over another.

“But the state’s policy does just that,” wrote Justice Kagan. “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.”

She said Alabama needed to demonstrate its policy was narrowly tailored to justify religious discrimination.

“I have no doubt that prison security is an interest of that kind,” wrote Justice Kagan. “But the state has offered no evidence to show that its wholesale prohibition on outside spiritual advisers is necessary to achieve that goal.”

I agree with Justice Kagan. Our religious freedom must be upheld, even if it’s inconvenient for some. Discrimination directed at any religion impacts negatively all religions. Let’s hope the Supreme Court gets it right next time.