Religious freedom case involving Buddhist death row inmate in Texas just got more intriguing

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At first glance, it might seem like a simple solution.

The state of Texas had a quick response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a Buddhist death row inmate who asked for his spiritual adviser to be in the execution room with him.

In case you missed it earlier, the high court granted a rare stay of execution to Patrick Murphy last week. This came, as we noted, after a different high court ruling in an Arkansas case concerning Muslim inmate Domineque Ray.

The Lone Star fix? Ban all religious chaplains from the death chamber.

OK, problem solved. Or not.

The better news reports I’m seeing — both in Texas papers and the national press — reflect the crucial legal arguments in Patrick Murphy’s case and not just the simplified sound bites.

Among the incomplete coverage, CNN reports the Texas change as if it’s the end of the discussion:

(CNN) The Texas Department of Criminal Justice will bar chaplains, ministers and spiritual advisers from execution chambers in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last week that halted the execution of an inmate who sought to have his Buddhist spiritual adviser in the death chamber.

The move is the latest step in a controversy that pit the religious liberty concerns of death row inmates against security concerns of prisons.

The justices agreed to stay Patrick Henry Murphy's execution, but weeks earlier, had denied a similar request from an inmate in Alabama.

Murphy's initial request had been denied by Texas because officials said for security reasons only prison employees were allowed into the chamber, and the prison only employed Christian and Muslim advisers.

Lawyers for Murphy challenged the policy arguing that it violated Murphy's religious liberty rights. The Supreme Court stepped in and put the execution on hold.

In a statement released Wednesday, the state now says that, "effective Immediately," the protocol now only allows security personnel in the execution chamber.

To its credit, CNN notes:

When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Murphy, only Justice Brett Kavanaugh detailed his thinking in the brief order. He said that the government "may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations."

Kavanaugh also said that states had two options going forward: allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room or allow inmates to have a religious adviser, including a state-employed chaplain, only in the viewing room, not the execution room.

"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," he wrote.

But what do Murphy’s attorneys say about the Texas action?

Reuters includes a quote from a death penalty opponent, but doesn’t really get to the heart of the legal debate.

For more insight, this Twitter thread by Luke Goodrich, an attorney for the Fund for Religious Liberty, is extremely helpful:

I was pleased to see the Texas Tribune quote Goodrich because his arguments add depth to the debate:

Under the policy, prisoners will still be able to meet with a TDCJ chaplain or a spiritual adviser “who has the appropriate credentials” on the day of execution. But religious rights advocates claim the policy change doesn't address the ruling from the court, only Kavanaugh's opinion. Luke Goodrich, a senior counsel with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm that advocates for prisoners' free exercise of religion, said Murphy's situation goes beyond discrimination among different religions and infringes on his religious freedom by not allowing a chaplain of his faith in the death chamber with him.

"This policy change is Texas trying to dig in its heels, but it's in a pretty weak position legally," Goodrich said.

The Associated Press also quotes one of Murphy’s attorneys:

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.

It’s important, in other words, to understand the full extent of the constitutional arguments, emphasized in this tweet by Goodrich:

I liked, too, that the Houston Chronicle offered these specific details concerning Murphy’s faith:

As a Buddhist convert, Murphy argued that he needed a spiritual adviser in the room to help him focus his thoughts on Buddha at the time of his death so that he could be reborn in the Pure Land. But prison policy only allowed department employees — which include Muslim clerics and Christian chaplains — in the execution chamber. Everyone else had to observe from outside.

So when Murphy asked to have a spiritual adviser of his choosing, the prison system said no — and the condemned man took it to court, delaying the death protocol as the justices weighed their options late into the night. Two hours after he was to be executed, the high court ruled in his favor.

Despite the Texas policy change — and despite some news coverage suggesting otherwise — important and compelling religious freedom issues remain to be decided in the Murphy case.

Stay tuned.

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