Judge sides with FFRF against Texas Attorney General

1judge-wayne-mack abtpgA district judge has rejected the Texas attorney general’s attempt to meddle in a Freedom From Religion Foundation lawsuit against an overly prayerful judicial official.

In March of this year, the national state/church watchdog and three individuals filed a federal lawsuit to stop a Texas justice of the peace from imposing prayers at the start of each court session

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton held a press conference on May 17 to announce his intent to interfere with the lawsuit against Judge Wayne Mack. FFRF called out Paxton for his “hyperbolic speculation” and set the record straight on the attorney general’s deliberate mischaracterization of the issues raised in FFRF’s lawsuit. Now a judge has affirmed the correctness of FFRF’s stance

“The fact that FFRF in other cases has brought Establishment Clause challenges to different practices by different Texas officials does not transform this case into a statewide attack on all Texas officials such that any state agency may intervene as of right,” U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. writes in his order. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) “has no legally protectable interest in the constitutionality of Judge Mack’s courtroom prayer practice.”

FFRF feels vindicated in its standpoint.

“The Texas AG unsuccessfully tried to portray this as a war by outsiders on the good people of Texas,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “What we’re actually doing is battling to protect the First Amendment — which protects us all.”

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

In the past, before starting each of his court sessions, Mack introduced a “visiting pastor,” outlining his credentials, advertising the church he is from and where it is located. The guest chaplain often read or sermonized from the Christian bible, then asked all attendees to bow their heads and pray. By spring 2015, Mack inaugurated some changes, having the bailiff introduce the prayer prior to Mack entering the courtroom. Notably, Mack chose to lock the courtroom doors prior to the chaplain-led prayers. Those seeking to avoid the prayer and re-enter the courtroom inevitably drew attention to themselves by knocking on the courtroom doors.

In July, FFRF filed a response to deny Mack’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Judge Werlein has set a hearing for Jan. 10 for arguments on this motion and a similar one filed by Montgomery County. FFRF is confident it will prevail again. 

FFRF has more than 30,000 members, with 1,300-plus living in Texas, including its three co-plaintiffs. All three object to courtroom prayer and felt compelled to remain in the courtroom during Mack’s prayers at risk of jeopardizing their cases and careers.

FFRF and the other plaintiffs are being represented by FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover, with FFRF Associate Counsel 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 has case number 4:17-cv-881

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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