FFRF takes on Texas attorney general

1Ken Paxton

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is facing off with the Texas attorney general in an ongoing lawsuit in the Lone Star State.

On June 7, the state/church watchdog filed a brief opposing Ken Paxton’s request to intervene in FFRF’s case against Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack. FFRF is suing Mack due to his practice of opening each session of his court with prayer.

Paxton is seeking to intervene in FFRF’s lawsuit on behalf of an unrelated government agency that is under his jurisdiction, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. He held a press conference on May 17 to announce his intent to interfere with the lawsuit. Paxton is using his memorandum to the court to grandstand, ignoring the very purpose and narrow scope of FFRF’s lawsuit: to stop Mack’s prayers. Paxton instead absurdly accuses FFRF of seeking “to use Judge Mack as a vehicle to . . . erode religious liberty throughout Texas and the nation.”

In its newly filed brief, FFRF calls out Paxton for his “hyperbolic speculation” and sets the record straight on the attorney general’s deliberate mischaracterization of the issues raised in FFRF’s lawsuit.

“It is shocking to have the highest law enforcement officer in Texas trying to flout the First Amendment in this manner,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “There can be no true religious liberty when the government and its courts misuse their authority to establish religion.”

Along with three plaintiffs directly affected by Judge Mack’s religious rituals, FFRF filed suit in March in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston. All three local plaintiffs felt compelled to remain in the courtroom during Mack’s prayers at risk of jeopardizing their cases and careers, or their clients’ cases. They are asking the court to rule the Montgomery County courtroom prayer practice a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Mack, as Montgomery County justice of the peace, has jurisdiction over minor misdemeanor offenses, including juvenile cases, and lesser civil matters. Montgomery County is north of Houston, and its county seat is Conroe.

The legal complaint asserts that due to his “considerable influence and power as a justice of the peace, Mack exerts coercive influence over those in his courtroom, effectively compelling their participation in his religious practice.” FFRF is seeking a judgment enjoining Mack from opening his court sessions with prayer and declaring his actions a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

FFRF and its plaintiffs are being represented by FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover, with FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell serving as co-counsel. Attorney Patrick Luff of the Luff Law Firm in San Antonio, is serving as local counsel.

Freedom From Religion Foundation et al. v. Judge Wayne Mack and Montgomery County, Texas has case number 4:17-cv-881.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 nonreligious members across the country, including 1,200-plus in Texas. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional separation between state and church.

Photo by Alice Linahan 

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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