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Texas bans chaplains of all faiths from execution chambers after Supreme Court ruling

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TEXAS, April 8, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Clergy will no longer be permitted into Texas execution chambers during a convict’s final moments, the state has decided after the U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution of “Texas Seven” member Patrick Murphy because the state refused to accomodate his request to have a Buddhist in the chamber with him.

The Texas Seven was a group of inmates that accomplished the largest prison escape in the Lone Star State’s history in December 2000, after which they committed multiple robberies culminating in a shootout that killed police officer Aubrey Hawkins. Murphy is not believed to have fired any shots, but he acted as the group’s lookout and was therefore held equally responsible for Hawkins’s death under the state’s law of parties.

Murphy was slated to be executed late last month, but his attorney claimed that the state was violating his religious rights by prohibiting his choice of a Buddhist chaplain. Texas permits only state employees who’ve passed background checks to be present in execution chambers and employs only Christian and Muslim chaplains.

The Supreme Court sided with Murphy in a 7-2 ruling. Justices John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh,  and Samuel Alito joined the court’s liberal wing, while Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

In a concurring opinion, Kavanaugh said Texas could either “allow all inmates to have a religious adviser of their religion in the execution room” or “allow inmates to have a religious adviser, including any state-employed chaplain, only in the viewing room, not the execution room.” He advised the latter, because states have a “strong interest in tightly controlling access to an execution room in order to ensure that the execution occurs without any complications, distractions, or disruptions.”

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has responded by selecting the second option, the Texas Tribune reports. Clergy will be required to observe executions from the same adjacent witness rooms that reporters and victims and prisoners’ families are allowed into.

“TDCJ Chaplain(s) will continue to be available to an offender until they are transferred to the execution chamber,” department spokesman Jeremy Desel said. “The chaplain will also be present in the viewing room if requested.”

The change does not clear the way for Murphy’s execution to resume, as the Supreme Court stated he can be killed only if he’s granted a Buddhist chaplain, but was presumably made in hopes of presenting a similar hurdle from arising in the future.

The Associated Press quotes Death Penalty Information Center executive director Robert Dunham as saying the change is consistent with the policies of most capital punishment states. But Luke Goodrich, senior counsel at the religious liberty nonprofit Becket, argued that a very real religious liberty issue remains.

“All that the plaintiffs are asking for here is that an already trained, already vetted chaplain who’s already been serving in high security settings could get the additional training needed to enter the execution chamber,” he said. “So just like we don’t torture prisoners or subject them to cruel or unusual punishment, we don’t take away their religious freedom for arbitrary and unnecessary reasons.

“It’s unfortunate that Texas decided it would rather provide religious freedom to nobody than to extend religious freedom to Buddhists,” Goodrich continued. “And unfortunately, that’s a dynamic that we often see among governments, where if it starts to become even the least bit difficult to accommodate religious practices they’ll just try to shut them all down.”

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