May 2019 Church & State Magazine - May 2019

Texas Inmate Has Right To Spiritual Counselor, Court Says

  Rob Boston

The U.S. Supreme Court in late March delayed the execution of a death-row inmate in Texas on the grounds that he had been denied the right to have a spiritual counselor with him in the execution chamber. 

The high court’s action in Murphy v. Collier temporarily blocked the execution of Patrick Murphy, a Buddhist who is on death row in Texas. The move surprised some observers because the Supreme Court, ruling in a very similar case in February, turned away a claim by a Muslim inmate on death row in Alabama who was denied the right to have an imam with him. 

State correctional officials told the Alabama inmate, Domineque Ray, that he could have a Christian chaplain during his final moments, but argued that allowing an imam to be present in the execution chamber would present a security risk. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the justices split 5-4 and ruled against Ray.

In the Texas case, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh switched sides and voted with the court’s liberal bloc, and it appears that Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito did so as well. Kavanaugh noted that correctional officials in Texas have a policy of allowing inmates facing execution who are Christians and Muslims to have religious leaders in the execution chamber. Therefore, he said, Texas could not deny the same right to a Buddhist. 

“In my view, the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination,” Kavanaugh wrote. 

The high court was widely criticized for denying Ray’s claim, and some legal observers believe the ruling in Murphy’s case was an attempt to blunt those attacks. 

Days after the court’s action, correctional officials in Texas announced they will bar all spiritual counselors from the execution chamber from now on.

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