Texas has decided to bar all prison chaplains from its execution chamber after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state violated an inmate’s rights by denying his request for a Buddhist chaplain to be by his side at the time of his scheduled death.
“In response to a recent ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has made a change to its execution protocol to only allow TDCJ security personnel in the execution chamber,” Jeremy Desel, a department spokesman, said in a statement to HuffPost on Wednesday.
The high court last week blocked the execution of Patrick Murphy, a member of the so-called Texas Seven group of escapees, ruling that the state could not allow spiritual advisers of some faiths but not others in the execution chamber. Texas previously allowed only prison employees into the chamber, and only Christian and Muslim chaplains were employed by the state.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion that allowing only Christian and Muslim chaplains into the execution chamber constituted “denominational discrimination.”
“As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion — in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech — violates the Constitution,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations.”
Under the new policy, which Desel said is effective immediately, no chaplains will be allowed into the execution chamber. Approved spiritual advisers will be permitted to visit a death row inmate and witness their execution from a separate room, Desel said.
Murphy was serving a 50-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault when he and six other inmates broke out of a maximum security prison near San Antonio in 2000. The Texas Seven, as they came to be known, committed several robberies, and one of the men shot and killed a responding police officer. Murphy had acted as a lookout and was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.
A rescheduled execution date has not been set.
According to his lawyers, Murphy became an adherent of a practice called Pure Land Buddhism while in prison. “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,” his attorneys wrote in a brief to Texas’ criminal court, explaining the inmate’s request for a Buddhist chaplain in the execution chamber.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Murphy’s case stood in stark contrast to its decision in a similar appeal just weeks prior, when it allowed a Muslim inmate’s execution to go forward in Alabama even after the state denied his request for an imam in the execution room.