Two Rulings Strengthen Perception of Anti-Muslim Bias in Supreme Court

Our highest court should not favor one group over another. We can do better.

April 4, 2019

What you need to know

On March 28th, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruled to delay the execution of Patrick Murphy, a Buddhist inmate in Texas, until his spiritual advisor could be present. In March, SCOTUS rejected a similar appeal made from Domineque Ray, a Black Muslim inmate in Alabama also facing execution. Ray’s case was rejected for making the request “too late,” whereas Murphy’s request was given with less notice and accepted. This is a double standard. On the heels of last June’s SCOTUS ruling in favor of the Muslim Ban, the inconsistent rulings only strengthen the perception of an anti-Muslim bias in the Supreme Court. Our highest court should not favor one faith group over another. We can do better.

The details

In Dunn v. Ray, SCOTUS denied Ray’s appeal to have an imam present at his execution, in line with an Alabama state law only allowing a Christian cleric into the execution room. In Murphy’s case, SCOTUS decided in favor of Murphy’s appeal to have a Buddhist spiritual advisor present during his execution, despite a Texas state law only allowing Christian and Muslim clerics to be present. One could argue the Court flipping in favor of religious freedom is a positive development. George Mason law professor Ilya Somin speculated the ruling was a sign of growth after the Dunn ruling received a “barrage of criticism ... from the left and the right” as well as a scathing dissent from Justice Elena Kagan.  

What is important is the basis on which the rulings were made. The underlying reasoning behind the Court’s rulings in the Dunn case was one of procedure. According to the Justices, Domineque Ray’s appeal to have an imam present was rejected because “Ray made his request too late.” In Patrick Murphy’s case, which appeared before the Court less than two months later, SCOTUS ruled to halt the execution because of the Constitutional prohibition against religious preference.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, “Murphy made his request to the state in a sufficiently timely manner.” Justice Kavanaugh’s assessment was roundly rejected, both in Justice Kagan’s dissent and by civil society organizations. The ACLU made clear “there is no evidence that Ray sat on the claim or was dilatory in any way,” and the federal district and appeals court have described Murphy’s claim as demonstrably less timely than Ray’s. Nevertheless, SCOTUS ruled in Ray against the very same appeal to religious freedom they later respected in Patrick Murphy’s case.

In Trump v. Hawaii, a procedural basis again determined the Court’s decision over whether the Muslim Ban was religiously discriminatory. SCOTUS ruled in favor of the Muslim Ban after deciding the previous two iterations were motivated by anti-Muslim discrimination. Despite the Ban’s clear religious bias, the SCOTUS ruling was based on an interpretation that the textual changes made to the Ban’s third version were sufficient to deny any claims it was motivated by religious discrimination.

The Supreme Court is fundamentally a deliberative body made up of people with biases, ideological dispositions and juridical styles — a fact made clear during every confirmation proceeding, but perhaps made most apparent during Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. The integrity of our judicial system rests on the assumption that a judge’s beliefs and ideologies do not bear on their ability to consistently interpret the law. The Court’s decision in the Muslim Ban case and the flip between the Ray and Murphy cases are clear examples of how Justices’ personal and discriminatory biases can still generate inconsistent judicial rulings between cases.  

Despite a Constitutional prohibition against religious preference, differences in prison policies at the state and local levels ultimately guarantee many similar cases will be inconsistently decided at the judicial level. In the case of our prison system, this would mean guaranteeing a provision of resources such as religious clerics, texts, and food that meet the breadth of inmates’ religious practices. These policy changes could prevent cases like Ray’s and Murphy’s from ever getting to the Supreme Court in the first place.

Federal and state laws protecting the right to religious freedom are still evolving. We therefore must ensure, as our legal system engages with these complicated questions, judicial decisions maintain our nation’s commitment to religious freedom.


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