FFRF challenged Texas Judge’s Coercive Courtroom Prayer Practice (2022)

FFRF filed a lawsuit against Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack on May 29, 2019, due to his refusal to end the divisive practice of opening each of his court sessions with chaplain-led prayer. This lawsuit came after FFRF’s initial lawsuit against Montgomery County, challenging the same practice, was dismissed without prejudice on September 27, 2018, for lack of redressability, without reaching the merits of the constitutional claims. U.S. District Court Judge Ewing Werlein Jr., for the Southern District of Texas in Houston, dismissed the original case because the only defendant was Montgomery County, which has no control over Mack’s courtroom practices.

Despite numerous complaints regarding the practice, which was not commonly done in other courtrooms anywhere in the country, Judge Mack insisted on opening his court session with chaplain-led prayer. Attendees reported Judge Mack surveying the courtroom during prayers and feeling that their cases may have been affected by how they chose to react.

Judge Mack had his courtroom bailiff announce the prayers and state that anyone may leave the courtroom and their case will not be affected, although the courtroom doors are locked to those outside. Then Judge Mack would enter, talk about his chaplaincy program, introduce a chaplain, and give the name and location of the chaplain’s church. While everyone in the courtroom remained standing, the chaplain, who was almost always Christian, delivered a prayer, with no guidelines from Judge Mack regarding permissible content.

On May 21st, 2021, Judge Hoyt ruled in favor of FFRF and local attorney “John Roe,” stopping Judge Mack from conducting courtroom prayer in the future. The decision stated that Judge Mack violated the Establishment Clause by having chaplain-led prayer in front of a captive audience. If he attempted to violate the court’s order, an injunction would have been issued. This ruling followed an order granting default judgment against Judge Mack in his official judicial capacity.

This ruling was appealed in June 2021 to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. A panel of three judges granted Judge Mack a stay, allowing him to continue his prayer practice pending the outcome of his appeal. Oral arguments were conducted in April 2022. On September 29th the 5th Circuit released their opinion, it reversed the lower court’s ruling in favor of FFRF and dismissed the claims against Judge Mack in his individual capacity.

The anonymous “John Roe” plaintiff was represented by FFRF Associate Counsel Samuel Grover, with FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell and Attorney Ayesha Khan of Washington, D.C. serving as co-counsel. The lawsuit was Case No. 19-cv-1934 in the Southern District of Texas, with Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt presiding. The appeal was No. 21-20279 in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

District Court Documents

Documents on Appeal

Amicus Briefs

Freedom From Religion Foundation