Had Domineque Ray been a Christian, he’d have been executed with a chaplain kneeling by his side, praying with him. But Domineque Ray was not a Christian, and he did not want a Christian chaplain. He wanted his imam present in the execution chamber instead.
At a January 23 meeting, the warden at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, refused Ray’s request. Ray’s imam, who has ministered at Holman for years, would have to watch the execution with the media. It’s policy, the warden explained. Ray asked to see the policy, since it was news to him. The warden refused. It turns out the policy wasn’t actually written down.
That was Wednesday. By Monday, Ray filed a complaint, saying the policy violated both the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the First Amendment. The district court rejected it and said his execution should go forward: “Ray has had ample opportunity in the past twelve years to seek a religious exemption.” But the appeals court said Ray had a “powerful Establishment Clause claim. … Alabama appears to have set up precisely the sort of denominational preference that the Framers of the First Amendment forbade.” The claim might have been made at the last minute, the appeals court said, but that doesn’t mean Ray delayed.
It was a compelling argument. But on February 7 the Supreme Court issued a short 5–4 decision, saying Ray’s complaint had come too close to his execution date. That evening, he was executed.
Court observers, First Amendment scholars, and religious liberty advocates across the ideological spectrum were flummoxed and flabbergasted.
“In my 30 years of writing about religious freedom, I can’t recall a case as outrageous,” wrote Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter, a former clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall (and former CT columnist). “To deny [a condemned] person his chosen spiritual counselor at such a moment is the ultimate cruel triumph of our current wave of secularization.”
Likewise, National Review’s David French wrote, “The state’s obligation is to protect and facilitate the free exercise of a person’s faith, not to seek reasons to deny him consolation at the moment of his death.”
They’re right. And it’s good to see Christians defending the religious liberty of non-Christians. It comes at a time when Christian religious liberty organizations are either scaling back such advocacy or are under increasing pressure to do so.
At the 2016 Southern Baptist annual meeting, pastors chastised convention bodies that had filed friend of the court briefs on behalf of New Jersey Muslims wanting to build a mosque. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) didn’t back down. “A government that has the power to outlaw people from assembling together and saying what they believe, that does not turn people into Christians,” he said. “That turns people into pretend Christians, and it sends them straight to hell.”
The International Mission Board (IMB) initially defended itself too, saying the briefs both embodied Baptist beliefs and gave its workers credibility overseas. But it soon changed its policies and promised to “speak only into situations that are directly tied to our mission.”
Five years ago, the IMB and ERLC were two of several Christian organizations that filed briefs in a Supreme Court case on behalf of a Muslim prisoner barred from growing a half-inch beard. The Alliance Defending Freedom was another. But the ADF website indicates it hasn’t advocated for a Muslim’s religious freedom since. Meanwhile, some Christian organizations have been suggesting that Muslims don’t deserve religious freedom because Islam isn’t really a religion. The Thomas More Law Center’s Tom Lynch took aim at another organization: “[If you] Believe Islam a religion, then support the Becket Fund,” he tweeted. “Believe it will destroy US, then [support] thomasmore.org.”
This is madness. When we advocate on behalf of Muslims and other religious minorities, the Golden Rule dovetails with making common cause against aggressive secularization and government overreach. (It’s worth noting that Alabama said that if it lost the Ray case, it would bar chaplains instead of allowing imams.) But if you only argue for the religious liberty of your friends and co-religionists, what’s the point? Even pagans do that! (Matt. 5:47) We who know true freedom do not want to use our own freedom for self-indulgence but to serve others humbly in love (Gal. 5:13). Advocating for religious freedom is not just about what’s good for Christians. It’s also about being Christians: It is a way in which we can show our neighbors what the True God is about.
Ted Olsen is editorial director of Christianity Today.
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