Stanford Religious Liberty Clinic Joins Legal Team in Death-Penalty Chaplaincy Case


Montgomery, Ala. – Charles L. Burton, Jr., a devout Muslim and death row inmate, today filed suit against the Alabama Department of Corrections (the “ADOC”), challenging its unconstitutional and unlawful policy concerning religious advisors in the execution chamber.

The ADOC policy requires the presence in the execution chamber of the chaplain of Holman Correctional Facility, a mainline Protestant Christian, while prohibiting inmates from other religious traditions, including other Christians, to have present religious advisors of their faiths. In practice, inmates who share the chaplain’s faith may hold his hand and pray with him in their final moments, but that same comfort and prayer is denied to those of other denominations or faiths. This violates basic principles of religious equality and human dignity.

The issue was first raised in February in the case of Domineque Ray, who had requested his imam in the execution chamber. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit stayed the execution on constitutional grounds, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated that stay without addressing the merits of Mr. Ray’s claims. Just last week, however, the Supreme Court granted a stay to Patrick Murphy, a Buddhist death row inmate in Texas, who raised the same issue.

Mr. Burton is represented by attorneys Spencer Hahn, John Palombi, and Matt Schulz of the Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama; attorneys Anand Agneshwar and Paige Sharpe of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP in New York and Washington, D.C., respectively; and Professor of Law and Director of Stanford Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic James A. Sonne, Clinical Supervising Attorney and Lecturer in Law Zeba Huq, and students at the Stanford Religious Liberty Clinic.

Professor Sonne emphasized that “Mr. Burton desires the ministry denied to Mr. Ray in his final moments, and has respectfully filed this lawsuit in an effort to protect his legal rights and preserve his spiritual well-being.” Given the Supreme Court’s ruling in Mr. Murphy’s case, Mr. Burton and his legal team are confident that the rule of law will prevail. As Professor Sonne added, “no matter your political or religious perspective, surely we can all agree on the abiding importance of religious liberty at the hour of our death.”

A copy of the complaint can be found here.