Texas Judge May Continue To Lead Courtroom Prayer

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that a Texas judge may continue to open his courtroom proceedings with a prayer in a hotly contested case.

Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack won the right to continue with his practice when the court rejected the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) lawsuit with a 2-1 vote. The plaintiffs represent atheists and agnostics and filed suit in 2019.

Mack reserves a few minutes at the start of each Montgomery County court day for prayers offered by various community faith leaders. The appeals court did not agree with the FFRF’s claim that opening the day with prayer may be seen as prejudicial.

In its opinion, the Fifth Circuit said that the “perceived risk of prejudice” is not enough to warrant action against the daily prayers. Rather it must be “objectively reasonable” that the prayer’s “coercion is a real and substantial likelihood.”

Further, the court ruled that Mack’s practice may continue as long as representatives of different faiths are delivering the prayers and there are no consequences for those who do not participate.

In his dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge E. Grady Jolly said that it is reasonable to believe that nonparticipation will anger the former Pentecostal minister. Mack campaigned on having the prayer in his courtroom daily. Jolly cited an example of hostility towards a nonparticipant in the practice.

The FFRF has not declared if it intends to appeal the circuit court’s ruling, but did say that “a courtroom is not a church and a judge’s bench should not be a pulpit.”

The organization’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gayor, said further that it is dishonest to claim “a tradition of courtroom prayer and deny that it is coercive.”

Mack’s attorney, Bradley Hubbard, of course agreed with the 5th Circuit and said that his client’s daily opening “respects a rich historical tradition” of having an invocation to open judicial proceedings.

A U.S. district judge last year agreed with the plaintiffs that the courtroom prayers violate the First Amendment, but the appeals court noted several historical examples of courtroom prayer going back to the nation’s earliest days.