Court dismisses FFRF case on standing, not merits

Judge Mack

A federal court judge has dismissed a lawsuit by FFRF and three local plaintiffs against a Texas justice of the peace who imposes prayer at the beginning of court sessions.

FFRF and three plaintiffs directly affected by Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack’s religious rituals filed suit in March 2017, naming him in his official capacity and Montgomery County. U.S. District Court Judge Ewing Werlein, Jr., for the Southern District of Texas in Houston, issued a ruling on Sept. 28.

The court dismissed the case based on standing (or right to sue), not on the merits.

Werlein said FFRF could not sue Mack in his official capacity, then dismissed FFRF’s claims against Montgomery County, saying the county has “no power to stop Mack from employing the prayer practice to which plaintiffs object” because the Texas Constitution establishes county commissioners courts.

Werlein dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning FFRF can refile the case, naming Mack in his personal capacity.

“This decision does not bless Mack’s unconstitutional actions, or in any way get him off the hook,” explains FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. She said FFRF will study the decision and confer with local plaintiffs who continue to be injured by the prayer practice, to decide how best to remedy the violation.

Both of the attorney plaintiffs have appeared before Mack multiple times on official business, including “Jane Doe,” a Christian who “objects to a government official telling her when or how to pray” and “John Roe,” a self-employed attorney who regularly represents clients in front of Mack, and who “is religiously unaffiliated and objects to being subjected to religious prayers” in a courtroom.

Mack, as Montgomery County justice of the peace, has jurisdiction over minor misdemeanor offenses and lesser civil matters.

All three of the individual plaintiffs felt compelled to remain in the courtroom during Mack’s prayers at risk of jeopardizing their cases and careers, or their clients’ cases.

Mack, a graduate of the Jackson College of Ministries, where he majored in theology, ran for justice of the peace in 2014 on a platform of reinstituting religious values within the office, partly by implementing a chaplaincy program. He established a volunteer chaplaincy program involving “visiting pastors” who start each of his court sessions with prayer, within his first weeks of office.

FFRF first sent a complaint letter to Mack in 2014 asking him to cease his courtroom prayers, receiving no reply, then filed a formal complaint with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, whose investigation lasted over a year. In November 2015, the commission declined to discipline Mack, citing lack of authority but cautioning Mack to end or substantially change the practice.