Texas Bans Clergy From Executions After Supreme Court Ruling

April 4, 2019 Updated: April 4, 2019

DALLAS—Texas prisons will no longer allow clergy in the death chamber after 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.

Effective immediately, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will only permit prison security staff into the execution chamber, a spokesman said Wednesday, March 3. 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 room where they’d be executed, but its prison staff included only Christian and Muslim clerics.

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Texas death row inmate Patrick Murphy request the Supreme Court recently to halt his execution, because the state won’t let his spiritual adviser accompany him into the execution chamber. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP)

In light of this policy, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas couldn’t move forward with Murphy’s punishment unless his Buddhist adviser or another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing accompanied him.

One of Murphy’s lawyers, David Dow, said the policy change does not address their full legal argument and mistakes the main thrust of the court’s decision.

“Their arbitrary and, at least for now, hostile response to all religion reveals a real need for close judicial oversight of the execution protocol,” Dow said

Murphy’s attorneys told the high court that executing him without his spiritual adviser in the room would violate the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The 57-year-old—who was among a group of inmates who escaped from a Texas prison in 2000 and then committed numerous robberies, including one where a police officer was fatally shot—became a Buddhist while in prison nearly a decade ago.

In his concurring opinion, the court’s newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, wrote that Texas had two options going forward: allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room, or allow religious advisers only in the viewing room, not the execution room.

“The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations,” Kavanaugh wrote.

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A Bible in the waiting room near the execution chamber of at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, on Nov. 30, 2009 . (Lucile Malandain/AFP/Getty Images)

The change brings Texas in line with most other death penalty states, which do not allow clergy into the execution chamber, according to Robert Dunham, a lawyer and executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. But it is also likely to open new legal fights for America’s busiest execution state, he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Murphy’s case followed a similar appeal in February, when the court ruled Alabama could execute a Muslim inmate without his Islamic spiritual adviser present in the execution chamber. The court decision that allowed Dominique Ray to be executed attracted public criticism.

By Jake Bleiberg

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