First Amendment

5th Circuit allows chaplain prayers in Texas court during appeal of establishment clause ruling

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A federal judge likely erred when he banned chaplain prayers in a Texas courtroom, a federal appeals court ruled earlier this month.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans issued a stay that allowed Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack of Montgomery County, Texas, to continue the chaplain program while he appeals, report Law360 and the Christian Post.

Members of any faith-based community can participate in the program, according to the 5th Circuit’s July 9 opinion. The chaplains deliver a prayer or offer “encouraging words” before court sessions, the opinion said. Signs notify courtroom visitors that they are not required to participate.

In addition, a bailiff tells visitors that they can leave the courtroom before Mack enters and introduces the volunteer chaplain. Mack turns his back to the courtroom during the chaplain’s words.

Judge Andrew S. Oldham wrote the panel opinion.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation filed the suit, along with an anonymous plaintiff, a lawyer who has appeared before Mack and said he feels compelled to remain in the courtroom during the prayers. The Freedom from Religion Foundation maintains that the prayers violate the establishment clause.

The 5th Circuit said the Freedom from Religion Foundation was likely wrong, citing the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision Town of Greece v. Galloway. The decision held that Christian prayers, delivered by a “chaplain of the month” before town meetings, do not violate the establishment clause.

Town of Greece and a prior opinion involved a legislature’s chaplains, rather than courtroom chaplains, the 5th Circuit acknowledged.

“But it’s unclear why that matters, given the abundant history and tradition of courtroom prayer,” the 5th Circuit said.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said in a press release the group is “disheartened” by the decision.

“The First Amendment must protect individuals from judges who wield their power to coerce participation in religious exercises,” she said.

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