Photo Credits: The Oklahoman
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the scheduled execution of a man who argued his religious freedom would be violated if his Buddhist spiritual adviser couldn't accompany him. Patrick Murphy, a Buddhist inmate, was supposed to be executed but he was not allowed to have his Buddhist chaplain in the execution chamber. Texas prisons will no longer allow clergy in the death chamber.
As VOA News reports, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will only permit prison staff clergy into the death chamber, a spokesman said Wednesday. The policy change comes in response to the high court's ruling staying the execution of Patrick Murphy, a member of the "Texas 7'' gang of escaped prisoners. Texas previously allowed state-employed clergy to accompany inmates into the execution chamber, but its prison staff included only Christian and Muslim clerics.
While religious freedom advocates applauded the move (blocking Murphy’s execution), some say the decision is confusing because, just a month earlier, the Supreme Court allowed the execution of Muslim death row inmate Domineque Ray in a similar circumstance.
The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the court’s earlier ruling in Ray’s case: “People of all faiths are entitled to religious freedom,” the ACLU said in a series of tweets. “The only real difference … is that Ray is a Muslim and Murphy is not. The Supreme Court’s divergent rulings once again suggest that Muslims are not treated equally.”
Sirine Shebaya, interim legal director at Muslim Advocates, wondered why the two cases had produced different outcomes. “In both cases, a state wrongly tried to ban an inmate’s chosen religious representative while allowing chaplains of other religions to be present,” Shebaya said. “Yet, the outcomes were so different as one plaintiff was a Muslim and the other was not.”
In Ray’s case, the court voted 5-4 along partisan lines to allow his execution to proceed. Justice Brett Kavanaugh voted with the majority, saying his decision was because the inmate filed for a review too late. On the other side, Kavanaugh sided with the court’s liberal justices in Murphy’s case. "The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations,'' the court's newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, wrote in a concurring opinion.
In a blog post last week, George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin suggested that the justices had likely heard the public outcry after they lifted the stay on Ray’s execution and sought to rectify their mistake in Murphy’s case, RNS reports.
The justices “belatedly realized they had made a mistake … that inflicted real damage on their and the Court’s reputations,” Somin wrote on Reason’s Volokh Conspiracy blog. “Presented with a chance to ‘correct’ their error and signal that they will not tolerate religious discrimination in death penalty administration, they were willing to bend over backwards to seize the opportunity, and not let it slip away.”