The Supreme Court of the United States stayed the execution of a man who was not permitted by his prison to have a spiritual adviser with him at the moment of death.
The decision of the high court contrasted with a decision in a similar case last month and was hailed by religious liberty advocates.
The Court on Thursday “blocked the execution of a Buddhist inmate on death row because prison officials wouldn’t let his spiritual adviser be in the execution chamber, even though they provide chaplains for inmates of some other faiths,” National Public Radio reported. Patrick Henry Murphy was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for his role in the 2000 killing of a state trooper.
“While on death row, Murphy became an adherent of a practice known as Pure Land Buddhism,” NPR explained:
In a brief to Texas’s highest criminal court, his attorneys explained why Murphy wanted his Buddhist priest with him. “Murphy’s belief is that he needs to focus on the Buddha at the time of his death in order to be reborn in the Pure Land,” where he could “work towards enlightenment,” they wrote. Having his spiritual adviser next to him at the moment of execution — or another Buddhist priest acceptable to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice — “will permit him to maintain the required focus by reciting an appropriate chant,” his attorneys said. Murphy’s attorneys made the request one month before the execution was scheduled. But the Texas prison rejected it. “We do not permit a non-TDCJ employee [to] be present in the execution chamber during the execution,” prison attorney Sharon Howell responded. She offered to let Murphy’s Buddhist adviser observe from the witness room. But for security reasons, only the official chaplain — a non-Buddhist — would be permitted in the chamber, she said. The execution was scheduled for Thursday evening. In a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court blocked it while his claim before the court went forward. Texas may not execute Murphy, the court wrote in its unsigned order, “unless the State permits Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual advisor or another Buddhist reverend of the State’s choosing to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber during the execution.” Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented, meaning they would have let the execution proceed.
“The relevant Texas policy allows a Christian or Muslim inmate to have a state-employed Christian or Muslim religious adviser present either in the execution room or in the concurring adjacent viewing room,” Kavanaugh wrote. Denying the same right to inmates of other religions constitutes “denominational discrimination,” he said.
“Religious liberty won today. The Supreme Court made it clear that the First Amendment applies to every American, no matter their faith,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, a religious liberty legal firm that had filed an emergency amicus brief on Thursday. “As we said in our brief to the Court, you can’t give fewer rights to Buddhists than you give to Christians or Muslims. In his last moments, a condemned man can receive both comfort from a minister of his own faith, and equal treatment under the law.”
The court’s action contrasted with their decision in the case last month of Domineque Ray, a Muslim, who was not allowed to have his imam with him for his February 7 execution. The court’s conservatives cited the “last-minute nature” of Ray’s request as the reason for letting the execution proceed. But Murphy had waited even longer than Ray to challenge the prison’s decision.
The court provided no explanation for the different result. NPR quoted George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin as saying it was a “mystery” why Kavanaugh, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justice Samuel Alito chose to stay the execution this time. But it was likely, he said, that “the justices saw the extremely negative reaction against their decision in Ray, and belatedly realized they had made a mistake; and not just any mistake, but one that inflicted real damage on their and the Court’s reputations.”