U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on Thursday sided with liberal justices in a ruling that delayed the execution of a cop killer amid claims that religious freedom would be violated if the death-row inmate’s Buddhist spiritual adviser wasn’t present during his final moments.
The nation’s highest court blocked the execution of Patrick Murphy about two hours after he could have been executed. Murphy is a member of the “Texas 7” gang of escaped prisoners who are awaiting the death penalty over the fatal shooting of a suburban Dallas police officer.
Murphy’s attorney argued that Texas prison officials were violating his client’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion by preventing the inmate’s spiritual adviser, a Buddhist priest, from witnessing the execution.
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But while Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said they would allow the execution to proceed, echoing lower courts’ view that rejected Murphy’s arguments, Kavanaugh — like Gorsuch, an appointee of President Trump — found himself on the opposite side from the conservative justices.
This follows the rulings last week, where in two out of three decisions by the high court, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh found themselves on opposing sides.
Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion on Thursday that while the Texas prison system allows a Christian or Muslim inmate to have their religious advisers present in the death chamber or in the viewing room, inmates of other religious denominations can have their adviser only in the viewing room and not in the execution room itself.
“As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech violates the Constitution,” he wrote. “The government may not discriminate against religion generally or against particular religious denominations.”
The justice added that Murphy cannot be executed until the state allows his Buddhist adviser or another Buddhist reverend of the state’s choosing to be present in the chamber during the execution.
“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.
“As this Court has repeatedly held, governmental discrimination against religion in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech violates the Constitution.”
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Officials from Texas argued in court that the reason only Christian and Muslims religious advisers are allowed is due to security concerns, noting that only chaplains who had been extensively vetted by the prison system were allowed within the chamber.
Murphy was one of the inmates who escaped from a South Texas prison in December 2000, despite being just 15 months away from being released on mandatory parole.
During the six-week manhunt, he and his gang committed multiple robberies, including the one in which they shot 29-year-old Irving police Officer Aubrey Hawkins 11 times, killing him.
As they were being captured, one of the gang members killed himself, while six other criminals were convicted of killing the officer and sentenced to death.
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Murphy would have been the fifth gang member to be executed. The sixth inmate, Randy Halprin, has not been given an execution date.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.