A federal appeals court reportedly allowed a judge from Texas to resume his chaplain-led prayers while the First Amendment lawsuit against his tradition continues.
The Christian Post said Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Judge Wayne Mack was allowed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to continue with his chaplain-led invocations before starting state court hearings amidst a lawsuit against him by a lower court for doing so as unconstitutional.
First Liberty Institute, a group of lawyers that defend religious liberty "for all Americans" and represents Mack in court for the case against him, announced the Fifth Circuit decision in Twitter on Tuesday. The group, through their Deputy General Justin Butterfield, also announced in a statement that Mack is "grateful" for the "victory."
"VICTORY: The Fifth Circuit issued a stay permitting our client, Judge Wayne Mack, a Montgomery County Justice of the Peace, to continue allowing chaplains to offer invocations at the start of his court sessions while a lawsuit against him is considered by the courts," First Liberty said.
"Judge Mack is grateful that the Fifth Circuit allowed him to continue following our nation's long history and tradition of opening court proceedings with prayer. We agree with the Fifth Circuit's conclusion that prohibiting the prayers was wrong. It's time for the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to end their harassment of Judge Mack." Butterfield disclosed.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued on July 9 its "stay" on Mack's case that was filed against him on his individual capacity, in particular, in accordance with his conduct as a judge; by Freedom From Religion Foundation and an anonymous attorney who goes by the alias of John Roe.
As per The Christian Post, Roe has attended Mack's hearings more than 20 times and was a witness to his chaplain-led prayers. The plaintiffs originally filed the lawsuit in 2017, refiled it in 2019, was granted a "default judgement" last March 25, and now it is petitioned for review.
The U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt ruled in favor of the plaintiffs last May 21 citing that Mack's chaplain-led prayers are "unconstitutional" out of his violation of the Establishment Clause "when, before a captured audience of litigants and their counsel, he presents himself as theopneustically-inspired, enabling him to advance, through the chaplaincy program, God's 'larger purpose.'"
In the stay released by the three-panel judge of the Fifth Circuit led by Judge Andrew Oldham, the judges stressed that while the investigation is going on, Mack would still be permitted to do as per "tradition."
The judges cited that Mack does not force people to participate in the prayers nor are the prayers limited only to Christians like him. Mack has even given notices in writing and oral forms that participation to said prayers are totally voluntary.
"It's undisputed that Judge Mack by contrast has taken multiple steps (including oral and written instructions) to facilitate non-participation in his opening ceremonies. Moreover, it's undisputed that
Judge Mack's opening ceremonies are open to chaplains of all faiths-not just Christians," the judges said.
"For the foregoing reasons, Judge Mack's motion for a stay pending appeal is GRANTED. Each of the district court's orders in this matter shall have no effect pending further order of this court. Given the ongoing 'Inquiry' by the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, notwithstanding our prior stay order, this panel will retain power to enter any additional orders that are necessary and appropriate in aid of our jurisdiction," they continued.
Mack was asked previously by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to submit some documents in line with the investigation. The Commission cleared that the said documents along with Mack's response on the complaints filed against him were requested not because Mack has "done anything improper" but in line with the investigation in the hope of "resolving this matter as expeditiously as possible."
Freedom From Religion Foundation filed the lawsuit against Mack after finding what he does "a mockery of both religion and law" because the "courtroom is not a church" and "a judge's bench is not a pulpit." They alleged that Mack was promoting religion with "purpose and effect," making it "unconstitutionally coercive."
Mack established "religious values within the office" when he campaigned as justice of Montgomery County Precinct 1 during the 2014 Republican Primary. He then instituted a Justice Court Chaplaincy Program when he got the post that enables volunteer chaplains of various religions, but primarily Christians, to lead the opening prayer, cite a Bible verse, or say an invocation before court proceedings. The program was instituted along with prayer breakfasts.
The flow of the court proceeding start with Mack announcing that prayers will be said and allows any one not wishing to participate to leave the room and be asked to come back again once the session begins. Mack explained in a 2014 statement addressed to the "Pastors & People of Faith." that what the FFRF is doing is "unacceptable" because "God has a place in all aspects of our lives and public service."
"I am so very grateful that we have our chaplaincy program in place to assist with helping families in our county through terrible tragedies and to provide a moment of perspective as our court begins proceedings. I am pleased that this program can continue while we are presenting our case to the 5th Circuit," Mack said on Monday.