Atheist Activist Group Sues Texas Judge for Opening Court With Chaplain-Presented Prayer

WILLIS, Texas — A prominent professing atheist group has filed a lawsuit against a Texas judge over his practice of opening court with a prayer from a local chaplain.

As previously reported, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) first sent a letter to Judge Wayne Mack of Willis in 2014, stating that it had received a complaint from an attorney and a local citizen, who said they felt coerced to participate out of fear of being disrespectful. Mack ignored the correspondence.

FFRF then sent a complaint to the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which—along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick—then requested that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issue a formal opinion on the prayers in Mack’s courtroom.

Last August, Paxton upheld Mack’s prayer practice as being lawful and consistent with both American history and legal precedent. He pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway.

“[W]e believe a justice of the peace’s practice of opening daily court proceedings with a prayer by a volunteer chaplain … is sufficiently similar to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Galloway such that a court would likely be compelled to agree with Galloway that the long-standing tradition of opening a governmental proceeding with prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause,” Paxton wrote.

Mack made a few changes in the interim, such as after asking any objectors to step out of the room, automatically locking the doors to the courtroom until the prayer is over. However, FFRF believes it is not enough because those seeking re-entry will have to knock on the door and thus be seen by others. It filed suit on Monday on behalf of three anonymous complainants.

“Judge Mack has created a courtroom prayer practice that unambiguously and unnecessarily endorses religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” the lawsuit states.

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“Through his actions and public statements, Judge Mack has created the unambiguous impression that he, acting in his official capacity as justice of the peace for Montgomery County, endorses religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths,” it asserts.

And although those present may leave the room if desired and not participate in the prayers, the organization contends that “[d]ue to his considerable influence and power as a justice of the peace, Judge Mack exerts coercive influence over those in his courtroom, effectively compelling their participation in his religious practice.”

FFRF is seeking a declaration that Mack’s inclusion of prayers from local chaplains violates the Constitution, as well as an order that such prayers cease.

As previously reported, on Monday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that prayers presented at board meetings for a Texas school district are constitutional and do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

It concluded that the prayers offered by students during the meetings of the Birdville Independent School District are more like those presented in a legislative body rather than a classroom. The panel pointed to the nation’s history and longstanding practice of presenting prayer at public events.

“[I]n Marsh v. Chambers, a member of the Nebraska legislature sued state officials, claiming that the practice of opening each session with a chaplain’s prayer violated the Establishment Clause. The court upheld the practice without applying any of the conventional tests, observing that ‘[t]he opening of sessions of legislative and
other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country,’” the court noted.

It also cited the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which ruled in favor of non-coercive prayers presented during city hall meetings in Greece, New York.

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