Lawyer For CVUSD In Public Prayer Suit Misses Court Date

(June 18) The lawyer representing the Chino Valley Unified School District and its school board in the lawsuit brought against them by the Freedom from Religion Foundation missed a court hearing in the matter on June 8, raising further questions about the board’s judgment and objectivity with regard to the separation of church and state issue that provoked the lawsuit.
In November, the Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wisconsin filed suit against the district on behalf of two named 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 conduct of district business to cease.
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 has engaged the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) for one dollar to defend the district in the civil lawsuit.
The Pacific Justice Institute 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 their religious faith, employers attacked for their religious-based policies, [and] students and teachers’ rights to share their faith at public schools.”
The Pacific Justice Institute’s assertion that religious fervor, and Christian fervor in particular, has a proper place in public discourse resonated with both James Na and Andrew Cruz, the two board members whose recitation of prayer and Christian homilies and other Christian references triggered the lawsuit.
Na and Cruz are members of the 10,000 congregant 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. Expounding their belief that the hand of Providence is guiding the district, both Na and Cruz were able to prevail upon another member of the board to put her faith in the Pacific Justice Institute, which has a stable of Christian attorneys, including its founder, Brad Dacus, its chief counsel, Kevin Snider, and staff attorneys Matt McReynolds and Michael Peffer, at the ready to ensure that keeping God in school remains kosher.
Peffer, who works out of the firm’s Santa Ana office, has been assigned to handle the Chino Valley Unified School District case through much of its pre-trial stage. Dacus, Snider and McReynolds have a track record that includes their involvement in a number of high profile freedom of religious speech cases, such as Newdow v. Lefever, which involved the defense of the national motto – In God We Trust – in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals; representation of pastors Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery in opposition to a case which sought to enjoin them from giving the invocation and benediction at the inauguration of President Obama; International Church of the Foursquare Gospel v. City of San Leandro, establishing one of the leading precedents on the West Coast favoring religious land use; Snatchko v. Westfield LLC, the first case to extend free speech protections in the California Constitution to shopping mall evangelism; and Welch v. Brown, defending the rights of Christian counselors to present Biblically-based viewpoints to their minor clients. Moreover, Dacus, Snider and McReynolds have garnered publicity for the cause of open Christian evangelism through appearances on America Live, CBS Evening News, CNN, Dateline NBC, Good Morning America, MSNBC, NBC News, News Talk TV, The Today Show, and the O’Reilly Factor.
Peffer has had considerably less exposure than some of the other Pacific Justice Institute lawyers. There was concern that school district might encounter some rough legal sledding with him at the helm of its legal defense. His status as a mid-drawer or even lower-drawer attorney in the law firm was given rather unpleasant emphasis on June 8, when he outright failed to show up in United States District Court for the Central District of California Eastern Division for a hearing in the matter, a mandatory scheduling conference relating to the case.
Peffer’s failure to show put the district at risk of having a default judgment entered against it. That did not occur, however, and advocates of Christian prayer saw that as a sign of the rectitude of their cause. Hibbs seemed to speaking for many of them when he went on record as saying, “Whether people like it or not, religion is part of the fiber of America and we encourage our congregation to speak the truth in the public square.”
The school district had no comment on the matter.

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