Patrick Henry Murphy v. Bryan Collier, Executive Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice

On the evening of March 28, Patrick Murphy was awaiting death by lethal injection. His final request for his Buddhist minister to pray with him at his execution, and help lead him into the afterlife in which he believes, had been denied. Yet at 9:20 pm—two and a half hours after Murphy was scheduled to die—the Supreme Court of the United States stepped in. The Court said that Texas could not go forward with the execution unless and until it granted Murphy the right to a reverend of his own faith at his side.

It was a shock—especially given that just weeks before, the Supreme Court refused to stop the execution of Muslim prisoner Domineque Ray when he was denied an imam at his own moment of death.

The story of what changed—and how Becket helped win the rights of the condemned to the comfort of clergy—comes down to the power of arguments based on principle.

Texas denies religious rights at death 

For the past six years, Patrick Murphy has practiced his Buddhist faith in prison with the help of spiritual advisor Rev. Hui-Yong Shih. Mr. Murphy believes that the presence of his spiritual advisor in the moments before his execution is necessary to assist him to maintain the focus required to be reborn in the Pure Land after death.

Despite Texas permitting Rev. Shih to visit Mr. Murphy in prison for over six years, and despite official prison approval of Rev. Shih as a prison spiritual advisor, the State of Texas refused Mr. Murphy’s request to have Rev. Shih present with him in the execution chamber. Texas made the surprising argument that a Buddhist minister was a security risk to the prison. And this was despite the fact that Texas already permitted Christian ministers and Muslim imams to be present in the execution chamber.

An eleventh-hour voice of reason 

Death penalty appeals are harried, and provoke strong feelings and emotions from all sides. In order to help prevent this from clouding the key religious liberty issues at stake, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court. This brief pointed the way toward a clear path that could protect the religious liberty of Mr. Murphy, while cutting through the competing arguments and ideological differences that are usually involved in a death penalty appeal.

Becket’s brief made the point that principles of religious liberty—and the very tangible religious liberty interest of Mr. Murphy—should not be ignored simply because the Court might not approve of the delay tactics that often accompany a Supreme Court death penalty appeal. Instead, the Court could protect religious liberty and find other ways to make their dislike of last-minute stay applications known.

More specifically, Becket marshaled key legal and historical sources to explain why a prisoner facing imminent execution has the constitutional right to turn to his minister for crucial support:

“The guidance of the soul at the moment of execution—the moment at which the knife falls—has for centuries been well recognized as a crucial moment of religious exercise calling for a minister’s guidance. This Court should recognize that our Constitution and civil rights laws support a right to that guidance.”

Becket asked that the Court order the State of Texas to grant Murphy access to his Buddhist minister in the execution chamber, which is exactly what the Supreme Court did.

The Supreme Court took action 

Almost two and a half hours after the scheduled start of Murphy’s execution by the State of Texas, the United States Supreme Court issued an order halting Murphy’s execution. The Court ruled that Texas could not proceed with the execution “unless the State permits Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual advisor… to accompany Murphy in the execution chamber,” exactly following Becket’s recommendation.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote separately, reinforcing the fact that “governmental discrimination against religion—in particular, discrimination against religious persons, religious organizations, and religious speech—violates the Constitution.”

What changed?  

But what about the Muslim prisoner who was denied the same source of comfort at the moment of his death just a month earlier? One factor is clear: Becket’s involvement in the case brought new legal arguments to the table—arguments that were not made in the prior appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, without the benefit of these arguments, was not presented with the full picture. Becket relied on cases that support the Free Exercise of religion, and prevent discrimination against people with different religious beliefs as a result. But the arguments previously made in support of the Muslim prisoner were more limited, and focused instead on different legal protections. This change was crucial to the protection of religious liberty in principle and in practice.

Importance to Religious Liberty

  • Individual Freedom: Religion is an innate human desire, and all individuals regardless of their legal status deserve protection of their constitutional right to practice and adhere to their faith.
  • RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.

Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut, Inc. and Pong Me v. Town of Newton Planning and Zoning Commission

When the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Connecticut bought 10 acres of land to build the state’s first Buddhist Temple, they were unpleasantly surprised.

The Town of Newtown’s Planning & Zoning Commission denied them permission to build their proposed temple, citing the temple’s Asian architecture and the volume of cars and noise the temple could potentially cause.  Represented by Murtha Cullina LLP, the Cambodian Buddhist Society sued under RLUIPA and a Connecticut law guaranteeing religious freedom.

The case went all the way to the state supreme court, where Becket filed an amicus brief arguing that the Cambodian Buddhist Society was entitled to build its temple.  Sadly, the justices sided with Newtown, saying officials had acted on “neutral concerns” about public safety rather than religious bias.  Their decision was out of step with other state and federal courts, which recognize that RLUIPA and state religious freedom laws apply even when bias cannot be definitely proved.

Becket believes that the 500 million Buddhists around the world have a right to build proper facilities in which to practice their faith, whether they are in Cambodia or Connecticut. Apparently, the state of Connecticut disagrees.


Pine Hill Zendo Inc. v. Town of Bedford Zoning Board of Appeals

Few cases better illustrate the arbitrary and even whimsical way in which local zoning boards often reject petitions for special use permits than the case of Pine Hill Zendo v. the Town of Bedford, New York. Pine Hill Zendo is a Buddhist temple, albeit a very small one. It is one of a handful of Rinzai Zen Buddhist temples in North America with a resident teacher, and consists of a meditation room in the home of John and Angela Mortensen. For a few hours four days a week, the zendo’s eleven members gather at the house for silent meditation, brief liturgies and instruction.

DenkoIn the spring of 2001, however, a neighbor complained to the Town Planning Board, and the Mortensens were asked to apply for a special use permit that would allow them to use the home as a “church or other place of worship,” although neither of those terms is defined anywhere in the Town zoning ordinance. The Zoning Board of Appeals held a hearing on the application on September 5, 2001, and a group of neighbors appeared in opposition. None claimed that they had been harmed or even inconvenienced by Pine Hill Zendo during the previous two years. One resident even testified that other neighbors told her they had never seen or heard anything, and didn’t even realize the Zendo existed. Opponents simply speculated that traffic and parking problems might develop.

The ZBA rejected the application for a special use permit, citing “issues related to traffic and on-street parking,” although on-street parking is permitted in the area at any time except for overnight hours during the winter months. And, incongruously, the Board cited concern over noise, despite the fact that the Zendo’s primary activity is silent meditation.

On November 2, 2001, Becket joined the case. On November 6, 2001, Pine Hill Zendo filed suit against the Bedford ZBA in the Supreme Court for the County of Westchester, New York, seeking reversal of the Board’s decision. The Town of Bedford subsequently settled, resulting in a victory for the Zendo.