Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh went against the conservative line to block the execution of a Texas prisoner based on a claim of a violation of religious freedom.
Death row inmate Patrick Murphy was convicted of capital murder in the killing of a suburban Dallas police officer as a member of the “Texas 7.” While doing a 50-year-sentence for aggravated sexual assault, Murphy escaped from prison along with six other inmates.
The police officer was shot while they were robbing a sporting goods store. Murphy was the lookout in the getaway car.
Several members of the gang have already been executed. Murphy would have been the fifth, with one member of the gang dead and the seventh still awaiting an execution date.
Murphy’s case was a bit different, though. He appealed for a stay because authorities were not willing to let a Buddhist priest witness his execution.
According to Murphy’s attorneys, this is a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Murphy converted to a form of Buddhism while incarcerated. “Murphy’s 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,” the attorneys wrote.
The challenge here for the court was to weigh Murphy’s request against that of other death-row inmates who are allowed to have chaplains present during the execution.
The prison maintained this has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with safety. Murphy made the request just one month before the execution date, and the prison would only permit the official chaplain, a prison employee, to be present in the room, per its security guidelines.
Court rules for religious freedom
In his majority opinion, Kavanaugh stated, “As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech violates the Constitution. The government may not discriminate against relegation generally or against particular religious denominations.”
By his own wording, Kavanaugh was not making a case against the death penalty but rather for religious freedom as it is protected in our Constitution.
Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented.
It is very important to realize that, as this case is probably going to get twisted seven ways to Sunday by the media as some great revolt by Kavanaugh. In this case, he did what he was supposed to do: interpret the law according to the Constitution.