No Movement Toward Settlement In CVUSD Legal Fight Over Public Prayer

(May 5) Both the Chino Valley Unified School District and the Freedom From Religion Foundation appear to be digging in their heels over the issue of the school district board members’ and employees’ custom of engaging in Christian prayer recitals, Bible readings and proselytizing during meetings and other district forums.
In November, the Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wisconsin filed suit in Federal Court in Riverside against the district on behalf of two named plaintiffs, Larry Maldonado and Mike Anderson, and 21 unnamed plaintiffs who asserted they were alienated or intimidated at school board meetings because of overt and constant references to Christianity, including “prayers, Bible readings and proselytizing.” The plaintiffs want the intrusion of religiosity into the conducting of district business to cease.
While some district officials suggested the district could make an early and inexpensive exit from the lawsuit by dispensing with the sermonizing, at least two of the board’s members are members of the Chino Hills Calvary Chapel, a church led by the Reverend Jack Hibbs, who had successfully lobbied the board previously to include Bible study classes as part of the district’s high school curriculum. Hibbs evinces a denominationalist attitude, which holds that Christians have a duty to take over public office and promote their religious beliefs. Both board member James Na and board member Andrew Cruz were able to convince the remainder of the board that the district would not sustain any costs or liability as a consequence of defending against the suit and in January the board voted 3-2 against hiring the law firm which normally represents the district to respond to the suit. Instead, the district engaged the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute for $1 to defend the district in the civil lawsuit.
The Pacific Justice Institute, founded and led by Brad Dacus, touts itself as a public interest law firm that “handles cases addressing religious freedom, including church and private school rights issues, curtailments to evangelism by the government, harassment because of religious faith, employers attacked for their religious-based policies, [and] students and teachers’ rights to share their faith at public schools.”
According to the Pacific Justice Institute’s website, it stands “at the forefront of attorneys who recognize the need to preserve religious liberty in America.” The institute has sought to make a name for itself by taking on cutting edge religious activity-as-free speech cases which ultimately end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In addition to defending Christian ministering in public as a First Amendment-protected activity, the Pacific Justice Institute has taken on other school/educational context issues, such as challenging California law giving transgender students access to toilet facilities of their own choosing and opposing the teaching of yoga as an exercise program in public schools. Very recently, on April 30, the Pacific Justice Institute suffered a legal loss in the case of the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee v. City of Santa Monica. In that case the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee sued the city for shutting down Christmas displays. The case evolved when citizens and residents, objecting to the city’s permitting of nativity scenes on public property during the holiday season, applied to have other religious displays allowed. The city responded by establishing a lottery for display applicants. Christians then complained when only two of the city’s 13 venues were reserved for them. In response to the complaints, fed-up city officials cancelled the display program altogether. The Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, represented by the Pacific Justice Institute, sued the city. The city prevailed in the suit, which upheld the municipal ban on unattended displays in Palisades Park. The committee appealed, with the United States Court of Appeals For the Ninth Circuit ruling against it on April 30.
The case in which the Chino Valley Unified School District is a defendant has yet to proceed to trial, but there has already been some procedural wrangling, which is likely to continue for some time.
The case is being heard in the United States District Court for the Central District of California Eastern Division. The court granted continuing anonymity to those plaintiffs wishing to continue to maintain the confidentiality of their identities.
According to attorney Andrew Seidel, the attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation representing the plaintiffs, “The court granted a protective order which allows the plaintiffs to proceed under anonymity. This is not anything close to a decision on the merits.”
Seidel said he and the other attorneys representing the plaintiffs, David J.P. Kaloyanides and Rebecca Markert, are considering now whether to make a “substantive motion asking for an early court ruling” which would potentially order the district to cease and desist in allowing Christian prayer at the board meetings or whether to instead “proceed with discovery, asking for a lot of documents.”
Any talk of settlement or dismissal, Seidel said, must be viewed in the context of the plaintiff’s insistence that the educational system no longer be used as a venue for proselytizing.
“We are not willing to settle the case unless the district stops breaking the law, which means the board members stop using their office to preach,” Seidel said. “What we want is a consent agreement that both parties and the judge sign off on.”
A quick resolution, Seidel said, “won’t be simple.” He said the Pacific Justice Institute is locked into arguing that religious activity in the public forum of a school board meeting is protected speech. He said a motion to the court to get an early declaration contradicting that could be heard relatively soon, but that realistically, the issue will take much longer to resolve.
“If we make the motion, we could have a decision in three or four months,” he said. “If we go to full discovery, it may take two or three years. And after that, the district may decide to appeal.”
Seidel suggested it would take an act of God for the district to prevail in the case. He pointed out that a parallel case out of North Carolina within the last few days produced a ruling that “The school district in Rowan County North Carolina violated the law and the Constitution by having a Christian prayer at every one of its school board meetings.”
The court for the Central District of California would not be bound by that ruling, Seidel said, but it demonstrates the legal principles involved.
Seidel characterized the Pacific Justice Institute as a “radical Christian law firm” that was pandering to equally zealous members of the Chino Valley Unified School Board who were shortsightedly fixated on their own religious orientation and disregarding the belief systems and rights of others. “There are Christians in the school district,” Seidel said. “But there are also Moslems, and Hindus and Jews and atheists.”
His firm was not pursuing the case for money, Seidel insisted. “We did not take this case to make money,” he said. “We almost always lose money, even when we do recover costs. Those awards do not cover what we put out to follow through on these cases. Money is not the issue. Upholding the Constitution and protecting the rights of the students and having the school board concentrate on the role of educating students is the issue here. That is why we took up this case.”

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