AUSTIN, Texas — The attorney general of Texas has filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit against a judge who was sued by a prominent professing atheist organization over his practice of opening court with a chaplain-presented prayer.
“The lawsuit against Judge Mack is an affront to religious liberty and yet another attempt to push religious expression from public life,” Ken Paxton said in a statement on Wednesday. “The Commission’s prayer practice, like Judge Mack’s courtroom prayer, is completely consistent with our nation’s history of protecting religious expression.”
Paxton’s motion was filed on behalf of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.
As previously reported, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued Judge Wayne Mack of Willis in March in an effort to obtain an order prohibiting the prayers.
It had first sent a letter to Mack in 2014, stating that it had received a complaint from an attorney and a local citizen, who said they felt coerced to participate in the courtroom prayers 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 Attorney General 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 said that the adjustments were not enough because those seeking re-entry will have to knock on the door and thus be seen by others.
It consequently filed suit.
“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.
On Wednesday, Paxton, who reportedly attends a nondenominational church in Frisco, announced in a press conference that his office had filed a motion to intervene in the legal challenge and join in the defense for Mack.
“It’s amazing in a country founded on religious liberty, the centuries old practice of judicial and public bodies opening with prayer is coming under attack,” Paxton said. “Judge Mack’s courtroom prayer is lawful, constitutional, and embodies religious expression. One of the core principles which our country was founded on.”
FFRF contends that Paxton’s filing doesn’t demonstrate a strong enough interest in defending the prayer practice. It plans to oppose the motion.
“The motion fails to assert a specific interest that ties the attorney general’s office or TCOLE to Judge Mack’s courtroom prayer practice. The only connection between the two seems to be Paxton’s interest in helping out his friends at [the legal organization] First Liberty,” it remarked. “FFRF considers this requested intervention to be an abuse of Paxton’s power as attorney general in order to advance the religious mission of a private advocacy organization.”
John Jay, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and second president of the American Bible Society, said in 1823, “The Scriptures represent Christians as being engaged in a spiritual warfare, and, therefore, both in their associated and individual capacities, they are to expect and prepare for opposition. … Whatever may be the characters, the prejudices, the views or the arts of our opponents, we have only to be faithful to our Great Leader. They who march under the banners of Emmanuel have God with them, and consequently have nothing to fear.”