First up from the God Machine this week is a closer look at a step the U.S. Supreme Court took this week that seemed wholly at odds with bedrock principles of religious liberty.
At issue was Alabama's plan to execute a man, Domineque Ray, for the robbery, rape, and murder of a 15-year-old girl, Tiffany Harville, in 1995. His guilt was not in doubt. She wasn't even his first victim. Rather, what mattered in this case was the method in which the state planned to kill him.
Alabama said it would permit a Christian minister -- an employee of the state prison system -- to be in the execution chamber with Ray at the time of his death, but Ray was a Muslim and requested an imam. Officials balked and a court fight ensued.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiff, citing the First Amendment, and issued a stay. If Christian inmates can have a Christian minister with them during their executions, a unanimous appellate court panel concluded, then inmates of minority faiths deserve equal treatment.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, rejected the appellate court's reasoning. As the New York Times reported, the court's majority said little in defense of its decision, though Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenters, made a striking case that the majority was "profoundly wrong."
Under Alabama's policy, she wrote, "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," Justice Kagan wrote.
"That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause's core principle of denominational neutrality," she added, referring to the clause of the First Amendment that bars the government from favoring one religious denomination over another. [...]
"Ray has put forward a powerful claim that his religious rights will be violated at the moment the state puts him to death," she wrote. "The 11th Circuit wanted to hear that claim in full. Instead, this court short-circuits that ordinary process -- and itself rejects the claim with little briefing and no argument -- just so the state can meet its preferred execution date."
And that's ultimately what makes this dispute so notable. It's not about feeling sympathy for a man convicted of heinous crimes; it's about the underlying legal principle that in the United States, people of every faith tradition -- and those who've chosen not to follow a spiritual path at all -- will be treated equally under the law.
On matters of religious liberty, the government must remain neutral and not play favorites, and yet, Alabama is the nation's only state with an official policy of having a Christian minister -- and only a Christian minister -- in the execution chamber.
The five conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court didn't seem to care.