The Freedom From Religion Foundation says the misinformed opinion of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton approving courtroom prayer cannot go unchallenged.
Although Paxton's opinion, issued Aug. 15, was foregone and therefore not surprising, that does not make it any less irresponsible.
FFRF had acted on two complaints it received that Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Wayne L. Mack opens court sessions with Christian-based prayers.
Both complainants felt coerced to participate in the prayers and both participated against their conscience, out of fear of prejudicing the judge.
FFRF contacted the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct in October 2014. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and State Commission of Judicial Conduct Executive Director Seana Willing requested that Paxton issue an opinion on Mack's courtroom prayers.
FFRF notes the Office of the Attorney General has recently hired two attorneys from First Liberty, which defended Mack's courtroom prayers before the state commission. FFRF, in a brief to the Texas Attorney General's Office, pointed out that this creates the obvious appearance of a conflict of interest.
Contrary to Paxton's ruling, chaplain-delivered prayers in the courtroom cannot be likened to so-called "ceremonial deism" or justified as a natural extension of prayer by legislative bodies.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1991 that prayers delivered by a judge in his courtroom are unconstitutional. Paxton attempts to distinguish that case from Mack's, because Mack invites a chaplain to deliver the prayers.
The chaplains are part of a volunteer chaplain program in which religious leaders provide counsel to persons in distress. Such programs, legally questionable in their own right, typically do not intrude into the courtroom. Ironically, the chaplain prayers themselves create distress to those present who in good conscience do not wish to participate in religious rituals.