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Appeals court rules Texas courtroom can open with prayer

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Posted at 4:46 PM, Sep 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-30 22:37:25-04

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A deeply divided federal appeals court has ruled that a Texas judge may start the day with prayer, overturning a district court decision.

Judges on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in New Orleans split 2-1 in opinions handed down Thursday, reversing a ruling made without a trial by U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt.

Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack doesn’t force anyone to attend the prayers before court formally opens, Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote for himself and Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt.

Mack “takes great pains to convince attendees that they need not watch the ceremony — and that doing so will not affect their cases,” he wrote.

Judge E. Grady Jolly responded, “For the majority to find that there is no evidence of coercion, suggests, in my opinion, willful blindness and indisputable error.”

He noted that Mack is a Pentecostal minister who made a campaign promise to establish prayer in his courtroom. “He has previously criticized opponents of his prayer ceremony and has acted hostile following a litigant’s noncooperation in the prayer,” Jolly wrote.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Mack in 2017 for itself and an anonymous lawyer who said he attended the sessions out of fear that not doing so would hurt his clients.

“A courtroom is not a church, and a judge’s bench should not be a pulpit,” the foundation’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said in a news release Friday. “This is a dishonest decision, both in claiming a tradition of courtroom prayer and in denying that it is coercive.”

Two people who made sworn statements against Mack included an attorney who said he stayed out of the courtroom during the prayer and Mack gave him the “bare minimum” to which he was entitled in evicting a tenant. The other was a criminal defendant who said Mack tried to raise the fine in her plea agreement because she showed “apathy” during the prayer.

But, the majority said, neither proved bias.

“One got the precise penalty for which she plea-bargained, and the other won the eviction he sought. They offer nothing more than the subjective perception that Mack disliked them,” Smith wrote.