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Judge Sides with Atheist Group, Strikes Down Pre-Court Prayer as Unconstitutional

  • Michael Foust Crosswalk Headlines Contributor
  • Updated May 26, 2021
Judge Sides with Atheist Group, Strikes Down Pre-Court Prayer as Unconstitutional

A Texas judge’s practice of opening his court sessions in chaplain-led prayer violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on government establishment of religion, a federal district court ruled Friday.

Judge Wayne Mack, a justice of the peace in Montgomery County, Texas, created a chaplaincy program in 2014 allowing volunteer chaplains to “assist the Court system and Law Enforcement with grieving families on tragic death scenes or death call notifications.” Chaplains also were allowed to offer an invocation for Mack’s court sessions.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which calls itself an organization of “atheists, agnostics and skeptics of any pedigree,” sued Mack in federal court, arguing that the prayers were unconstitutional. FFRF represented an attorney who is a member of the organization and who frequently argued cases in Mack’s courtroom.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt issued a 15-page decision siding with the atheist organization. Hoyt was nominated by President Reagan. Mack’s attorneys say they will appeal.

“The Court is of the view that the defendant violates the Establishment Clause when, before a captured audience of litigants and their counsel, he presents himself as theopneustically-inspired, enabling him to advance, through the Chaplaincy Program, God’s ‘larger purpose,” Hoyt wrote. “Such a magnanimous goal flies in the face of historical tradition and makes a mockery of both religion and law.”

About 90 percent of the chaplains between November 2017 and October 2020 were Protestant Christians, although the chaplains list also included representatives of Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, Hoyt said.

“The defendant’s ceremony … violates the Establishment Clause because it has both a religious purpose and a primary effect of advancing or endorsing religion,” Hoyt wrote.

The First Amendment states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation celebrated the ruling.

“A courtroom is not a church, and a judge’s bench is not a pulpit,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “[The] ruling is a victory for the constitutional rights of all Americans and for equal justice under the law.”

But First Liberty Institute, which represented Mack, said the chaplaincy program does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

“Judge Mack is following a long tradition of opening courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, with a ceremonial invocation,” said Justin Butterfield, deputy general counsel to First Liberty. “We disagree with the court’s decision, and we look forward to appealing this decision to the Fifth Circuit.”

Photo courtesy: Pixabay

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.