AUSTIN – Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has requested an advisory opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton on the constitutionality of a volunteer justice court chaplaincy program and prayer given as part of the opening ceremonies.
The request was filed Feb. 17 on behalf of Montgomery County Justice Wayne Mack, who also serves as the county coroner.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct recently investigated Mack for allowing chaplains to open his courtroom proceedings with a prayer.
While the commission dismissed the matter, it sent a letter to Mack “strongly” cautioning him against continuing with the Justice Court Chaplaincy Program.
In his request, Patrick maintains the commission’s letter has left Mack and other similarly situated judges with a lack of clarity as to the constitutionality of the program.
The lieutenant governor believes the program is constitutional and within the bounds of U.S. Supreme Court precedents.
“I respectfully request an opinion as to the constitutionality of (l) the Justice Court Chaplaincy Program that Judge Mack offers as a religious accommodation to persons in distress and that also facilitates his job as County Coroner, and; (2) the Chaplain-led prayer in his court's opening ceremonies,” the request states.
As coroner, Mack is a first-on-scene responder to deaths.
“In an effort to provide better comfort and counsel for the friends and family of the deceased while also permitting Judge Mack to focus on his role in the investigation of the cause of death, Judge Mack began recruiting a volunteer chaplain cadre who would be willing, upon the request of the deceased's friends and family, to provide care and counsel to the mourners in those first-on-scene situations,” the request states.
“Judge Mack invited all religious leaders of any faith in Montgomery County to participate in this chaplaincy program. When Judge Mack must serve in this medical examiner role, he asks those at the scene of the death whether they would like him to invite a chaplain and if they have a preference for a chaplain of any particular faith.
“Only once those on-site request such a chaplain does Judge Mack send for one. County personnel who participate in the chaplaincy program do so on a voluntary basis.”