Halting execution of Buddhist inmate but refusing to do so for Muslim prisoner was 'discrimination'

The Supreme Court's contradictory rulings in the cases of Patrick Murphy and Domineque Ray have raised a lot of questions


                            Halting execution of Buddhist inmate but refusing to do so for Muslim prisoner was 'discrimination'

Last week, the US Supreme Court blocked the execution of a Buddhist inmate on death row because prison officials did not allow for his spiritual adviser to be present in the execution chamber, seemingly contradicting a precedent they had set in February where they denied a Muslim prisoner the same leniency. 

The 57-year-old Patrick Murphy — who was one of the infamous 'Texas 7' sentenced to death for the murder of Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins following their escape from John B. Connally Unit in Texas — was scheduled to be executed on Thursday, March 28.

However, in an 11th-hour stay which was granted more than an hour after Murphy was set to die by lethal injection at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in Huntsville, the country's highest court ruled that Murphy's religious freedom had been impeded.

"As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion — in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech — violates the Constitution," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote. "The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations."

According to NPR, Murphy's attorneys made the request to TDCJ for the Buddhist religious adviser to be present a month before the 57-year-old inmate was scheduled for execution. However, the request was rejected, with prison attorney Sharon Howell writing, "We do not permit a non-TDCJ employee [to] be present in the execution chamber during the execution."

The prison stated that, for security reasons, they could only permit the official chaplain — a non-Buddhist — to enter the chamber, but did offer to let Murphy's adviser observe from the witness room.

The Supreme Court stayed Murphy's execution (Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice)
The Supreme Court stayed Murphy's execution (Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

Murphy's lawyers subsequently raised the issue with the US Supreme Court. In a brief, they explained that the 57-year-old man had embraced "Pure Land Buddhism" while on death row and that his "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." Having his spiritual adviser next to him during the execution "will permit him to maintain the required focus by reciting an appropriate chant," they wrote.

In a 7-2 ruling in Murphy's favor on Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas may not execute him "unless the State permits Murphy's Buddhist spiritual advisor or another Buddhist reverend of the State's choosing to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber during the execution."

"The relevant Texas policy allows a Christian or Muslim inmate to have a state-employed Christian or Muslim religious adviser present either in the execution room or in the concurring adjacent viewing room," Kavanaugh wrote, adding that denying the same right to inmates of other religions constituted "denominational discrimination."

While the ruling was hailed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the human rights organization also made it a point to highlight the case of Muslim Alabama prisoner Domineque Ray. In February, the Supreme Court justices voted 5-4 to deny his request for an imam's presence in the execution chamber and allowed for his execution to proceed.

NPR reported that the decision was one made along party lines, with the Conservatives citing the "last-minute nature" of Ray's request as the reason for letting the execution proceed — Kavanaugh noted in the Murphy ruling that his request had been made in a "sufficiently timely manner, one month before the scheduled execution."

It was a view not shared by the four liberal justices, who called the decision to let Ray's execution proceed "profoundly wrong."

"The only real difference between the requests of Domineque Ray and Patrick Murphy to have clergy members of their own faiths at their executions is that Ray is a Muslim and Murphy is not. The Supreme Court's divergent rulings once again suggest that Muslims are not treated equally," the ACLU said in a statement.

Ray had his request to have an imam present by his side denied (Source: Alabama Department of Corrections)
Ray had his request to have an imam present by his side denied (Source: Alabama Department of Corrections)

"For a court that cannot bear the thought of a religious baker forced to frost a cake in violation of his spiritual convictions to be wholly unaffected at the prospect of a man given last rites by a member of another faith borders on staggering," Slate's Dahlia Lithwick wrote in a scathing piece similarly criticizing the decision at the time.

MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) asked Keith Werhan, Ashton Phelps Chair in Constitutional Law at Tulane Law School, why there was such a discrepancy in the ruling for two very similar cases. "The Texas case just decided and the Alabama case from earlier this year raise identical constitutional claims. In both cases, prison officials discriminated according to religion in deciding which prisoners could have spiritual advisors present at their execution," he said.

"Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissenting opinion for four justices in the Alabama case, wrote that the majority’s refusal to consider the constitutional claim had been 'profoundly wrong'. I agree with her. The Texas decision demonstrates that the Supreme Court could have honored the First Amendment rights of the inmate in the Alabama case, but chose to ignore the claim on a dubious rationale."

George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin ventured that the decision this time was influenced by their February ruling and that it was likely "the justices saw the extremely negative reaction against their decision in Ray, and belatedly realized they had made a mistake; and not just any mistake, but one that inflicted real damage on their and the Court's reputations."