Atheist group sues Texas judge for 'unconstitutional' opening prayer

An anti-religious group is suing a Texas judge for opening prayer -- for the second time.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is suing Montgomery County Judge Wayne Mack, who is Justice of the Peace for a precinct about 50 miles north of Houston, for an opening ceremony that includes pledges and prayer. The Wisconsin-based group said the practice violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

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“Judge Mack’s actions remain unconstitutional,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, said in a statement. “We’re relitigating to safeguard the U.S. Constitution and to keep our country’s courtrooms equally accessible to all people, regardless of their personal religious or nonreligious beliefs.”

When Mack began serving in 2014, he started a volunteer chaplaincy program for religious leaders of all faiths, including 60 chaplains across "every mosque, temple, and synagogue" represented. But FFRF argues the program coerces judges and people involved in the cases to participate in state-sponsored prayer.

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"It is the tradition of this court to have a brief opening ceremony that includes a brief invocation by one of our volunteer chaplains and pledges to the United States flag and Texas state flag," Mack's courtroom rules read. "You are not required to be present or participate."

Judge Wayne Mack (left) with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and members of the multi-faith chaplain program.

Judge Wayne Mack (left) with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and members of the multi-faith chaplain program. (Courtesy of First Liberty Institute)

According to the Texas Association of Counties, a Justice of the Peace presides over the justice court in cases involving misdemeanors, small civil disputes, landlord/tenant disputes, as well as performing marriage ceremonies.

In FFRF's lawsuit, a non-religious lawyer, using the pseudonym John Roe in the suit, argues he feels pressured to bow his head during the prayer and stay in the room for fear that refusing to do so or leaving might impact the outcome of his clients' case.

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Hiram Sasser, First Liberty general counsel representing Mack, believes the FFRF is harassing Mack yet again, despite already losing in court.

In September, U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein dismissed the original suit FFRF filed on grounds the county was not the appropriate party because Mack is employed by the state judiciary.

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion at the time upholding Mack's pre-court prayer ceremony, stating that the judge was following legal precedent and complying with the Constitution.

"It’s ridiculous that a group from Wisconsin would continue to fight invocations similar to those the Supreme Court of the United States has twice ruled are constitutional," Sasser said in a statement. "Judge Mack already defeated the FFRF once. We look forward to defending Judge Mack and helping him win yet again in the face of this blatant harassment.”

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The Supreme Court has upheld that government entities can include prayer in two separate cases.