An appeals court has overturned a ruling in Texas that banned a local judge from opening his court sessions with prayer.
Wayne Mack, a judge in Montgomery County, Texas, has been under scrutiny recently due to his opening his court sessions with a chaplain-led prayer. If a lawyer or other individual did not want to be present during the prayer, they were allowed the choice to leave the courtroom during the process. However, some advocacy groups criticized this practice, claiming it was discriminatory. In 2019, An unnamed lawyer decided to sue Mack over this practice in partnership with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, claiming that the act was discriminatory. Sam Grover, the plaintiff's representative, made the argument that "By opening each session of court with one specific person's religious belief, you're sending a message to the community that some people are favored while the non-religious are not." There were also concerns that any party leaving the court could have their impact affected by that decision
However, Mike Berry of the First Liberty Institute challenged this claim, stating that the act of prayer is common in courts. Both the US Supreme Court and Texas Supreme Court open with an invocation, a feat that resembles a prayer in essence.
In May 2021, a federal judge ruled against Mack's practice. The judge decided that Mack was presenting his religious views "before a captured audience of litigants and their counsel … to advance, through the Chaplaincy Program, God's 'larger purpose'" and that "Such a magnanimous goal flies in the face of historical tradition, and makes a mockery of both, religion and law."
However, Mack challenged the ruling in an appeals court and was able to get it turned over. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on Friday that would permit a chaplain to continue praying in Mack's court. The circuit judge noted that Mack's practices made the ability to abstain clear to any involved and proclaimed that there was no evidence that the court rulings were impacted by not being involved in prayer.
"I am so very grateful that we have our chaplaincy program in place| Mack told the Houston Chronicle in a written statement "to assist with helping families in our county through terrible tragedies and to provide a moment of perspective as our court begins proceedings."