A divided U.S. appeals court has decided that a Texas judge may continue to begin the opening of court hearings with a prayer.
According to Reuters, Wayne Mack, Texas Justice of the Peace, was prosecuted by The Freedom From Religion group for his custom of having religious leaders offer brief prayers at the beginning of each court day.
Mack won a 2-1 majority on the Fifth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. The FFRF argued that Mack’s actions might be seen as prejudiced, but the court dismissed that argument. We reject the plaintiffs’ claim that “coercion inside a courtroom stems from a perceived risk of prejudice, not from the application of actual prejudice. In order for us to establish that coercion is a genuine and significant likelihood, the plaintiffs will be required to provide evidence that any such view is objectively justified,” according to the court’s judgment.
The court ruled that Mack’s courtroom prayer rituals are acceptable as long as chaplains of all faiths are still permitted to lead the prayers and no one is penalized for not participating.
Judge E. Grady Jolly of the U.S. Circuit disagreed, stating that “Given that the former Pentecostal preacher ran on praying in his court and had behaved hostile after a litigant’s refusal to cooperate in the prayer,” it is logical to assume that nonparticipation will anger him.
According to Bradley Hubbard, the counsel for Judge Mack, “The 5th Circuit appropriately decided that Judge Mack’s short ceremony honors a rich historical tradition of commencing judicial sessions with an invocation.”
In a statement, Mack said, “I am forever thankful to the judges on the 5th Circuit who preserved this historical practice. I’m eager to keep helping the residents of Montgomery County.”
The Houston Chronicle reports that the FFRF has not yet decided whether it would appeal the ruling. Leaders of the FFRF did voice their displeasure with the decision. Gaylor declared, “A courtroom cannot be a church, and a magistrate’s bench should not serve as a pulpit. It is dishonest to pretend that courtroom prayers are customary while denying that they are coercive,” stated Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president.