WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court blocked the execution of a Texas prisoner Thursday night because he was not allowed to have his Buddhist spiritual advisor in the execution chamber.
It was an about-face for the court, which refused to block an Alabama inmate’s execution last month despite his being denied the company of a Muslim imam.
The justices were widely criticized for the earlier decision, which they justified by saying the prisoner made his request too late. In the latest case, involving Texas inmate Patrick Murphy, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote separately to explain that the timing was important.
The vote was 7-2, with Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissenting. They would have allowed the execution to take place.
The late-night controversy combined two issues that come to the court repeatedly: death penalty appeals and religious liberty claims. The court’s liberal justices are more likely to look kindly on the former; conservatives, the latter.
In the case of Domineque Ray last month, however, the court’s five conservatives allowed his execution to go forward despite the absence of an imam. Associate Justice Elena Kagan called the decision “profoundly wrong,” asserting that “his religious rights will be violated at the moment the state puts him to death.”
This time, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Samuel Alito and Kavanaugh switched sides.
“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, the court’s newest justice, wrote.
Texas allows Christian or Muslim religious advisors to be present at the moment of execution, Kavanaugh noted, but others are limited to the viewing room. That, he said, is discrimination.
“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 saids.
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