Texas bans all clergy from death chamber after court stays Buddhist's execution

By Gabriella Borter

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) - Texas will bar clergy of all faiths from accompanying inmates into the death chamber after the U.S. Supreme Court stayed an execution because the state did not allow the man's Buddhist spiritual adviser in.

The policy, which had previously allowed Christian and Muslim chaplains employed by the department to enter the chamber, now forbids anyone besides security personnel from entering, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said on Thursday.

"Employed chaplains can no longer walk the extra four steps" into the chamber with inmates, spokesman Jeremy Desel said in a phone interview. But he noted that religious advisers of any faith can remain in the witness room.

The change comes less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of Patrick Murphy, 57, a member of the "Texas 7" group of prison escapees who was placed on death row in 2003. The court ruled that not allowing an inmate's choice of religious adviser in the death chamber would be discriminatory.

"Governmental discrimination against religion — in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech — violates the Constitution," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the court's opinion.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has said it abides by the ruling while adhering to security protocol.

But critics called the new policy an attempt to avoid granting prisoners of different faiths the solace of having an adviser with them in their last moments.

"Rather than allowing spiritual advisers or chaplains of different faith traditions in the execution chamber, TDCJ has adopted the cruel and unusual policy of banning all chaplains and ministers/spiritual advisors from the execution chamber," wrote Kristin Houle, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, in a statement.

Texas has executed more prisoners than any other state, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the U.S. total since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Steve Orlofsky and Richard Chang)