Written by Don Byrd

If you have been following the Supreme Court’s stunning religious liberty turnaround in death row cases, you will want to check out the Religion News Service’s Beliefs podcast featuring the Baptist Joint Committee’s Executive Director Amanda Tyler. Following up her analysis of the two cases in a recent column published by RNS, Tyler explains why there is likely more to the story of the Supreme Court’s grappling with the issue of whether and to what extent death row inmates have a right to have their own spiritual advisor accompany them in the execution chamber.

For background: weeks after rejecting an Alabama inmate’s argument that permitting a Christian chaplain but denying a Muslim Imam in the execution chamber amounts to religious discrimination, the Supreme Court reached the exact opposite conclusion, halting Texas’ execution of Patrick Murphy, a Buddhist prisoner, under very similar facts. Sadly, Texas responded to the court’s ruling not by offering an accommodation but by barring all clergy from the execution room, a decision Tyler decried in her the podcast interview.

Here is an excerpt:

I think that’s the exact wrong direction.  We at B.J.C. say when anyone’s religious freedom is denied everyone’s is threatened and I think that’s what we see here. You know here we saw Mr. Murphy is having his religious freedom denied when his request was refused. But the state’s response isn’t to accommodate that religion. It’s to say well if we have to provide it to you then we just won’t provide it for anyone. And that of course hurts not only Mr. Murphy but every other prisoner who might be executed now without a spiritual adviser at his side.

I think many of us in the religious freedom world think that that’s not right. So it will be interesting to see if we see future litigation of this case as it relates to Mr. Murphy and what impact that might have. And if the court will indeed say there is actually a first amendment or a statutory right under something called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that provides extra protection for prisoners that they actually have an affirmative right to have a spiritual adviser in the death chamber. That could be a question that we’ll be seeing in the coming weeks or months the court address.

[T]his particular controversy about religious freedom in the death chamber – it feels like we haven’t heard the end of this because the justices are having conversations with each other in these opinions. And I think they might be reflective of conversations they’re having inside and with each other at the court. And we’ll see if we see future. Arguments or decisions. I do think this is an evolving area. It’s. It’s an interesting one and it’s one that has gripped the attention of court watchers and everyday Americans as well.

Already, another case may be in the pipeline. A new complaint filed in Alabama by inmate Charles Burton alleges religious liberty violations under the federal constitution, Alabama law, and the federal RLUIPA, for refusing his request for an Imam in the execution chamber and for the state’s insistence on the presence of a Christian chaplain.

Stay tuned.