HOUSTON – Earlier this year, a Montgomery County judge was sued by a nonprofit secularist foundation for having prayers during the beginning of his courtroom sessions.
The complaint against Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack was filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the Houston Division of the Southern District of Texas on March 21.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, along with three other plaintiffs, are asking the court to rule Judge Wayne Mack’s courtroom prayer rituals within the Montgomery County courtroom a direct violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. One of the plaintiffs, who is addressed as Jane Doe, is mentioned in the legal complaint, noting that Doe “does not believe in any supernatural high power, and being subjected to religious prayer by a government official violates her sincerely held beliefs.”
According to a press release from the FFRF, a complaint letter was sent to Mack, but the foundation never received a reply. Changes made by Mack in 2015 include having a bailiff introduce the prayer practice before Mack entering the courtroom, and having the courtroom doors locked prior to chaplain-led prayers.
First Liberty Institute, concentrating on religious liberty matters and First Amendment rights, is representing Mack in the case.
Chelsey Youman, counsel for First Liberty Institute, told The Record Mack’s chaplaincy program started as a way to help in his position as justice of the peace and county coroner when dealing with witnesses of death and trauma scenes.
“He found his job to be very difficult to accomplish the investigation when there were sometimes witnesses and bystanders at the scene looking to be comforted after being traumatized by the death scenes. In the volunteer chaplaincy program, he sent invitations to every single faith community in the county.
“Upon the request of an individual at the scene, the volunteer chaplain, day or night, would arrive and help in the moment,” said Youman. “In order to honor those chaplains, Judge Mack invites them to opening ceremonies in the courtroom and they are allowed to offer a brief invitation. This is in line with the Texas Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. This is definitely history and tradition he is continuing to follow. The FFRF decided to sue him because of this practice, and we filed a motion to dismiss.”
“We were surprised, because there was a complaint filed with SCJC (State Commission on Judicial Conduct) last year, and that complaint was dismissed,” said Youman, when asked about the case. “The attorney general of the state of Texas even drafted an opinion that came out resoundingly supporting the practice as being constitutional and lawful, so we do believe that the constitutional law is on our side.”
Youman also mentioned a precedent that supports Mack’s case.
“In Town of Greece v. Galloway, and another Supreme Court case, the Supreme Court did hold that having volunteer chaplains open legislative sessions is constitutional, so there is precedent for our situation.”