When you enter a courtroom for whatever reason – as a defendant in a case, as a juror, as an attorney or even just as an observer – what you believe about God and religion isn’t supposed to be relevant.
In one Texas courtroom, religion was made relevant. In fact, it was showcased.
Judge Wayne Mack, a magistrate in Montgomery County, instituted a practice of allowing guest chaplains to open his court sessions with a prayer in 2014. It is a highly ritualized ceremony. As the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) put it, “Mack’s bailiff announced the prayers, stating that anyone could leave during the prayer, but then locked the courtroom doors. Mack entered, talked about his chaplaincy program, introduced a chaplain, and gave the name and location of the chaplain’s church. While everyone in the courtroom remained standing, the chaplain, who was almost always Christian, delivered a prayer, with no guidelines regarding permissible content.”
As a justice of the peace, Mack has jurisdiction over matters such as minor misdemeanors and small civil matters, meaning this is the kind of courtroom the average person might end up visiting. Several people complained over the years, but Mack refused to end the practice. There were even reports of him surveying the courtroom while the prayer was recited to ensure everyone was taking part.
A few years ago, an anonymous attorney known as “John Roe” in court papers, decided to challenge Mack’s prayers in court. As Roe noted, while Mack claimed people could leave during the prayer, no attorney would ever do that, fearing it might prejudice the judge against his or her client.
FFRF brought the case, with assistance from Ayesha Khan, former legal director at Americans United. Last week, a federal court declared Mack’s prayer ceremonial unconstitutional.
“The court is of the view that the defendant violates [church-state separation] when, before a captured audience of litigants and their counsel, he presents himself as theopneustically inspired, enabling him to advance, through the chaplaincy program, God’s ‘larger purpose,’” wrote U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt. “Such a magnanimous goal flies in the face of historical tradition, and makes a mockery of both religion and law.” ("Theopneustically” means “divinely.”)
The court clearly made the right call. In our legal system, everyone is to be treated the same. Obviously, we sometimes fall short of that ideal, but it’s vital that we continue to strive for it. When a court sends a message that a religious person, specifically a Christian, will be looked upon with favor while a non-Christian or a non-believer will not, the court’s crucial sense of fair play and objectivity is lost.
In a country where justice is supposed to be blind, that’s absolutely the wrong message for any court to send.
P.S. If you see a possible church-state violation and want Americans United to check it out, here’s a form you can use.