No opening of court sessions with prayer.
No volunteer chaplains to comfort the grieving when a county coroner arrives.
That’s what a secular legal organization demanded of a county more than 1,000 miles away.
But one brave local judge, Wayne Mack of Montgomery County, Texas, and a team of attorneys from First Liberty Institute stood strong and said, “Not on our watch.” And last week almost 1,000 people celebrated the legal victory as a panel of distinguished speakers urged others to stand.
The celebration was Judge Mack’s annual faith and freedom breakfast. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX, and Chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee), First Liberty President Kelly Shackelford, and Judge Mack were among those who addressed the crowd.
“There are a lot of people who back down when they get pressure,” said Kelly Shackelford. “So it’s nice to see someone like Judge Mack who says, ‘No, this is not just about me. This is about every other judge in every other county. This is about every other American whose freedoms are going to get taken away unless someone stands up.’”
LOCAL COMPASSION ATTACKED FROM LONG DISTANCE
The controversy began in September 2014 when The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) of Madison, Wisconsin complained about private prayers by chaplains to open Judge Mack’s court sessions. Mack, who serves as county coroner in his capacity as a justice of the peace, established a volunteer chaplaincy program to help citizens in distress due to crises such as deaths of family members.
Alarmingly, the FFRF complaint—which incorrectly alleged that the prayers and the chaplain program were an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion—had touched off an investigation of Judge Mack by the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The Commission dismissed the complaint, but “strongly cautioned” Judge Mack to dismantle the chaplaincy program and end his practice of opening court sessions in prayer.
With First Liberty’s involvement—including an appearance with Judge Mack before the Commission—Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a legal opinion affirming the constitutionality of both the chaplaincy program and the practice of allowing chaplains to open court sessions in prayer.
Shackelford explained, “Now we’ve got an Attorney General’s legal opinion that says not only can Judge Mack keep doing his program, but so can every other judge in every other county in Texas who want to benefit the citizens there. In fact, this could be done across the country.”
WHAT AMERICA NEEDS . . . IS WHAT THEY WANT TO END
Addressing the crowd, Shackelford said, “What Judge Mack did here is what we so want in this country.”
“This is a man who saw a problem,” he explained, “Why not have the ministers volunteer to give ministry to people in need, which also allows the Judge to be free to do his job as a coroner? What a great idea.”
“And what a great idea to have these chaplains open his court sessions with prayer,” which Shackelford noted was the practice for the U.S. Congress, Supreme Court, and other government bodies.
He later elaborated: “We need people like Judge Mack who want to help their community, and come up with innovative and compassionate ways to do that.”
“But what happens when you try to do something good like that in this country today?” asked Shackelford. “Some group—the Freedom From Religion Foundation—files a complaint, and pretty soon you find yourself before an ethics commission.”
A REASON FOR OTHERS TO STAND
Shackelford said Judge Mack is a giant of religious liberty:
“It really was a privilege for First Liberty Institute to represent him. He set a precedent. It’s now very clear that every judge in every county in the state can do the kind of chaplaincy program he pioneered. It’s totally legal and constitutional.”
Judge Mack commented before the breakfast, “First Liberty has been there for us from day one, and has been there the whole way. We appreciate what First Liberty’s done for us. They are on the cutting edge of protecting our first liberty, and I’m excited for what they’re doing throughout the nation!”
The celebration of this legal win comes as public prayer is challenged in other courts, including a recent victory in Rowan County, North Carolina.
Currently the U.S. Supreme Court and both chambers of the U.S. Congress open with prayer. But that hasn’t deterred opponents from challenging the freedom to pray wherever possible in their long game to eliminate it. America will need brave people and legal resources to keep prayer public.
News and Commentary is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.