U.S. Supreme Court Blocks Execution of Buddhist Without Spiritual Adviser

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court halted the scheduled execution of a Buddhist man in Texas who said the state was violating his religious rights by barring him from having his spiritual adviser in the death chamber.

The justices granted Patrick Henry Murphy’s bid to block to his lethal injection unless the state allows a Buddhist spiritual adviser to be with him. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said they would have permitted the execution, which had been scheduled for Thursday.

The order marked an abrupt shift for the court, which last month voted 5-4 to let Alabama execute a Muslim man without his imam. Writing for the four dissenters in that case, Justice Elena Kagan said the majority decision was “profoundly wrong” because the state would have allowed a Christian chaplain in the death chamber.

The Alabama decision drew criticism in part because the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has repeatedly protected the religious freedoms of Christians in other contexts.

Texas contended that its chaplain policy was neutral toward religious denominations. Under the state’s rules, the only clerics permitted in the death chamber are those who either work for or have been approved by the state’s Department of Criminal Justice.

But Murphy said the policy was discriminatory because it allows a Christian cleric and possibly a Muslim imam in the chamber, but would have required his Buddhist adviser to be in an adjacent viewing room.

In an opinion that accompanied the latest order, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that, while Texas didn’t have to permit clerics in the death chamber at all, it couldn’t allow them for only two religions.

“The choice of remedy going forward is up to the state,” Kavanaugh wrote. “What the state may not do, in my view, is allow Christian or Muslim inmates but not Buddhist inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room.”

The other justices didn’t explain their reasoning.

A federal appeals court had said Murphy waited too long to make his request for a spiritual adviser. Murphy, whose execution date was set in November, lodged his request with prison officials on Feb. 28 and didn’t raise the issue in court until March 20, the panel said.

Murphy, 57, was sentenced to death for his role in the 2000 murder of police officer Aubrey Hawkins. Murphy was part of a group of seven inmates who escaped from a Texas prison and killed Hawkins during a robbery. Courts separately rejected his argument that he should spared because he was serving as a lookout and didn’t pull the trigger.

Murphy had previously been convicted of sexual assault.

The case is Murphy v. Collier, 18A985.

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