When you’re in a court of law, the only thing that should matter is the validity of your case. Other factors, such as gender, national origin or religious beliefs (if any) should be irrelevant. It would be best if the court didn’t even know about some of these things.
That’s the ideal, anyway. But in Texas, a local judge has decided to bring religion into his courtroom in a divisive way. Unfortunately, a federal appeals court has said he can keep doing it.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Sept. 29 in favor of Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack, who for years has been opening sessions with prayers. Under what he calls a “chaplaincy program,” Mack introduces religious leaders who then lead prayers and sometimes offer a short sermon.
Mack has insisted that no one had to take part in the ceremony and that people were free to leave the room, but that claim simply doesn’t wash. Imagine yourself as an attorney in Mack’s courtroom. Are you seriously going to risk incurring his wrath by walking out on his prayers? How might that affect your client?
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Mack over the religious ceremonies and won a favorable ruling from a federal court in May of 2021. But that good decision has been set aside by the 5th Circuit’s ruling. (Americans United filed a brief in the case on behalf of a group of scholars of religion and history, arguing that Mack’s in-courtroom sponsorship of religion is unconstitutional.)
Remarkably, the majority held that Mack’s prayers were not coercive.
“The plaintiffs cry coercion because Texas Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack opens his court with a ceremony that includes a prayer,” the majority wrote. “But Mack also takes great pains to convince attendees that they need not watch the ceremony – and that doing so will not affect their cases. Some attendees say they feel subjective pressure anyway. Yet the plaintiffs have no evidence suggesting that ‘coercion is a real and substantial likelihood.’”
This is simply disconnected from reality, and dissenting Judge E. Grady Jolly had no problem seeing through it. Jolly charged that the majority was naïve in accepting Mack’s claim that he would not act with bias against those who declined to participate in the prayers.
“When litigants enter Judge Mack’s courtroom, they must decide whether they will stay for the prayer ceremony or exit the courtroom for its duration,” Jolly wrote. “If they stay, thus aligning with Judge Mack, the courtroom is closed and the door is locked, leaving only the righteous with the judge. The litigants cannot sit back and observe: they are required to stand for the prayer ceremony. And when the actual prayer begins, the testimony indicates that Judge Mack scans the courtroom, leaving the impression upon litigants that he is indeed judging audience participation despite their supposed ability to abstain without consequence.”
As Jolly noted, Mack, a Pentecostal minister, sought the office vowing to establish official prayer in his courtroom. Jolly added, “For the majority to find that there is no evidence of coercion, suggests, in my opinion, willful blindness and indisputable error.”
There’s a reason allegorical representations of Justice are shown wearing a blindfold: Your views about religion (and other things) aren’t supposed to matter in a neutral hall of justice. They most certainly do in Mack’s court. That’s simply not right.