The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a motion for summary judgment in its federal case against a Texas justice of the peace who regularly foists prayer upon his courtroom attendees.
FFRF originally challenged the courtroom prayers in a lawsuit filed in March 2017, and due to various technical reasons refiled the case against Montgomery County Judge Wayne Mack in 2019 with an anonymous local attorney acting as co-plaintiff. The state/church watchdog and attorney “John Roe” are now asking for a swift decision to halt the unconstitutional practice.
The plaintiffs assert that Mack has abused his authority as a judge to illegally coerce attorneys, litigants and other citizens into participating in his courtroom prayers.
“Judge Mack’s courtroom-prayer practice is unconstitutionally coercive of those who appear in his courtroom,” the motion says. “Because Judge Mack’s court sessions coerce court participants into a religious practice, he has violated one of the strongest, most fundamental commands of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
Mack, a formerly licensed minister who attended Jackson College of Ministries, where he planned to major in theology, made the unprecedented decision as a judge to solicit chaplains to open his court sessions with prayer, a practice not replicated by any other court in the country. By spring 2015, after receiving scrutiny from FFRF, which lodged a formal complaint to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, Mack began revising his courtroom prayer practice.
Now, after attorneys have indicated their presence in the courtroom and after the docket has been called, but before Mack has entered, the bailiff gives a brief introductory statement describing the prayer protocol. This announcement is supposed to include a statement that those opposed to prayer may leave the courtroom without affecting the outcome of their cases, although it’s been inconsistently incorporated. Mack then enters the courtroom, mere moments after the bailiff’s announcement, and after his introduction, the chaplain leads a prayer. Anyone leaving the courtroom becomes conspicuous and the courtroom doors are often locked during the prayer.
FFRF’s motion makes several arguments, including that plaintiffs have standing to pursue their claims, that Mack’s prayer practice is unconstitutionally coercive and that its primary purpose and effect is religious.
FFRF seeks a judgment declaring that Mack’s prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause and awards to plaintiffs reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.
FFRF and Roe are being represented by FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover, with FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell and Attorney Ayesha Khan of Washington, D.C., serving as co-counsels.