Dunn vs Ray is a Low Mark, Even for This Supreme Court

Common Compassion and a Modicum of Decency Would Have Gone a Long Way

The Background

There have been a lot of high visibility news stories in recent weeks. Perhaps lost in the din of events, a legal case was settled in a result that is unworthy of us as Americans.

In February of this year, the US Supreme Court ruled on a freedom of religion case, Dunn vs Ray. The issues were narrow as these things go, yet this case should go down as one the court will carry with shame.

To be clear, Domineque Hakim Marcelle Ray was, by all indications, a terrible person. His record was unrelentingly bad and violent. His crimes were brutal, including rape and murder. By all indications, he deserved a full measure of punishment. Ray was in prison in Alabama; here, “a full measure” of punishment includes the death sentence.

In preparing to die, Ray had asked that he have access to an Imam, as he was a Muslim. Alabama protocols state that a prisoner may have a minister present at a time like this. That is what Ray was offered– a Christian minister. Not surprisingly, that was not a workable solution. Ray appealed, asking that an Imam be available. He asked that he not be executed until his request was honored or legal review was completed. Alabama said he could accept a Christian minister or do without.

Who Has Religious Freedom?

The Circuit Court denied Ray’s appeal. The Court of Appeals, however, agreed that this matter deserved legal review. The Supreme Court quickly sided with Alabama in a one paragraph ruling. By a 5-4 vote, they agreed that the execution should go forward on schedule, without an Imam. Ray was executed a few days later.

This result strikes me a dangerous on one level, and immoral on another level. The danger? This ruling essentially says Christianity is the religious standard for everyone. A priest or minister should be able to do the job for everyone. Imagine if most Christians were in a situation like Ray. If they were advised a rabbi, imam, or witch doctor would be there to ease them into death, they would take exception.

But some of us are OK with the opposite. That seems to violate the establishment clause, making Christianity the official, sanctioned religion. Whatever your beliefs, you should be able to figure out that is fundamentally wrong. It would be wrong even if 99%+ of Americans were Christians. The constitution I read informs me this is unconstitutional.

Such a decision seems immoral on a very basic human level. Some might say that Ray was a terrible person who deserves no mercy. I agree with that, but only to the degree that we do not sink below moral principles ourselves. We gain nothing by being as savage as those we condemn. To deny a simple request for religious comfort at the moment of death seems cruel and callous. It seems beneath us. It violates that whole “do unto others” thing we hear so often.

This is Now Part of Our History

It is difficult to know at this point what longer term impact this ruling may have. Perhaps little in the way of precedent. But in a moment when we had an opportunity to say what kind of people we are, the Supreme Court let us down. One can only hope that in time, those who voted to do this will feel the shame owed them.

      Bill Clontz

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7 replies to Dunn vs Ray is a Low Mark, Even for This Supreme Court

  1. This slipped by me. What a bad ruling for our Supreme Court and even worse for the future when it will be referred to in similar cases. Could you include the paragraph so we can possibly write to Chief Justice John Roberts and let him know what we think?
    Thanks from Sue

    • Sure, Sue. Dated Feb 7, 2019:

      Application (18A815) granted by the Court. The application to vacate the stay of execution of sentence of death entered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on February 6, 2019, presented to Justice Thomas and by him referred to the Court, is granted. On November 6, 2018, the State scheduled Domineque Ray’s execution date for February 7, 2019. Because Ray waited until January 28, 2019 to seek relief, we grant the State’s application to vacate the stay entered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. See Gomez v. United States Dist. Court for Northern Dist. of Cal., 503 U. S. 653, 654 (1992) (per curiam) (“A court may consider the last-minute nature of an application to stay execution in deciding whether to grant equitable relief.”). Justice Kagan, with whom Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor join, dissenting from grant of application to vacate stay.

  2. This was under my radar. I am outraged beyond words at such a callous treatment of another human being, no matter how flawed. Thank you for bringing to our attention this shameful event. I’ll share with others.

  3. It’s an inconceivable decision to deprive a person about to face death access to a religious leader of their choice. It looks to me the late filing of the request to stay was the deciding factor.and not necessarily the wording for a “Christian” minister. I’m sure the state must have allowed Rabbis to perform last rights and they are not ministers as such. Regardless, the court does not deserve the benefit of the doubt on this case.

  4. Agree with all of your articles. The one on capital punishment and the winnowing of democratic candidates are especially strong and need to be published broadly. Have you thought about writing for local publications? We need to spread the good words you are sharing with us. Hayes Fletcher

    • Thanks, Hayes. Always good to know that great minds think alike. I hope we all do talk up these issues for the election – and beyond.

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