July-August 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A federal court has ruled that a local judge in Texas must stop opening sessions with prayers led by chaplains.

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 during a ritualized ceremony.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which sponsored legal action against the prayers, reported that Mack’s bailiff announced the prayer and told people in the courtroom that they could leave while it was recited. The courtroom doors were then locked. Mack would enter, talk about the chaplaincy program he instituted, introduce the chaplain and give information about the chaplain’s church.

Although a handful of non-Christian chaplains took part, about 90% of the prayers were Christian.

Mack, who is a justice of the peace, presides over minor misdemeanors and small civil matters. Over the years, several people complained about his prayer ritual and a few years ago, an anonymous attorney decided to challenge it.

The lawyer, known as “John Roe” in court papers, noted that 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.

A federal court ruled in May that the official prayers must end.

“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.”)

FFRF brought the case, with assistance from Ayesha Khan, former legal director at Americans United.

Americans United hailed the ruling.

“The court clearly made the right call,” observed AU on its “Wall of Separation” blog. “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.”

First Liberty Institute, a Christian nationalist legal group that defended Mack, has vowed to appeal the ruling in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Mack.