Christians Wage Jihad For Soul Of The Chino School District

The Chino Valley Unified School District is torn by religious strife, as a group of fundamentalist Christians have attempted, and in some measure succeeded, in taking command of the district. Despite a lawsuit which challenges the religiosity that pervades the district’s schools and its district office, those championing the celebration of Christian ideals, standards and beliefs in a public setting remain unapologetic.
It is no secret that three of the school board’s members – James Na, Andrew Cruz and Sylvia Orozco – 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. In a very real sense, Hibbs’ ability to drive the members of his church to vote and support the candidates of his choosing has had a major impact on the policy of the district.
One of those policies is that of including prayer, i.e., specifically Christian prayer, religious homilies and constant reference to God in the discussions of the school board at its public meetings.
Some parents in the district objected to that practice. Efforts to convince the board members to tone the religious references down failed, resulting in the Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wisconsin filing suit in Federal Court in Riverside in November 2014 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.” In the suit, the plaintiffs are seeking the cessation of religiosity as an element in the district’s conducting of business.
While some district officials suggested the district could have made an early and inexpensive exit from the lawsuit by dispensing with the sermonizing, the board majority elected to make a test case out of the circumstance, and 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, defending Christian ministering in public as a First Amendment-protected activity, challenging California law giving transgender students access to toilet facilities of their own choosing, opposing the teaching of yoga as an exercise program in public schools, and contesting municipal bans on the display of nativity scenes on public property during the Christmas season.
While Cruz, Na and Orozco have indicated the district can wage the good fight against the Freedom From Religion Foundation and not sustain any costs or liability as a consequence of defending against the suit, others are not so certain. In other religious liberty cases brought under the aegis of the First Amendment, school districts that sought to stand up for prayer in school ended up having to pay in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars after they lost cases, even though they were defended pro bono. After litigating in an effort to teach “intelligent design” in public schools in 2005, the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania was socked with paying $1 million in legal fees to the prevailing party.
Moreover, there is concern that the district board will squander valuable time and attention on the suit rather than tending to the district’s business at hand, which is educating the district’s students. Those of the Christian and denominationalist orientation, trusting in Divine Providence as they do, have little concern for what the eventual outcome of the court case will be. If the case lingers in court for another two, three, four or even five years, that will suit their agenda, even if they lose, in that during that time they will be free to continue with on-campus and in-district proselytizing until a ruling clearly going against the district is handed down.
Indeed, the prospect for the United States District Court for the Central District of California Eastern Division allowing the intrusion of religion, and Christianity in particular, into the educational process in the fashion that takes place in the 31,992-student Chino Unified School District appears dim, at best. Since 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Engel v. Vitale that school-sponsored prayer in public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, most public schools – with some exceptions – have desisted in engaging in prayer sessions. In the few cases where the matter has come up, the ban on school prayer has been reaffirmed.
In 2014, however, in the matter of Town of Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court as it is currently composed, demonstrated that it is prepared to tolerate some measure of public prayer. In that case, a majority of the Supreme Court held that the recitation of a prayer at town board meetings does not violate the Establishment Clause when “the practice is consistent with the tradition long followed by Congress and state legislatures, the town does not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer a prayer, and the prayer does not coerce participation with non-adherents.”
The Pacific Justice Institute will very likely seek to apply the Town of Greece v. Galloway case to the one it is defending against on behalf of Chino Unified, despite the assertion by the plaintiffs that the praying and proselytizing in Chino is Christian-based and that those who have brought the suit assert that indeed they were being coerced.
The subtleties of what has grown into the current standard with regard to freedom of religion appears to have been lost on some of the principals involved.
Na, for example, habitually celebrates his love of America, Republican values and his Christian faith in both private and public contexts. He genuinely seems to assume with most of his interlocutors that they share his views and attitudes and, ingenuously expresses disapproval akin to being hurtfully disappointed if one does not embrace his leanings, let alone resists his importuning that he or she embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has suggested that it is wrong for anyone to assert that he is the one out of step with what is right and that it is incumbent upon those who disagree with him to change themselves. “Everyone who does not know Jesus Christ, go find him,” he said during a board meeting.
Na’s attitude reflects that of his pastor, Hibbs.
Hibbs calls upon his congregants to be “political activist soldiers in the service of the Lord” and “prayer warriors.”
Hibbs has asserted “No law is going to stop people from praying.” A handbill he authored states, “It has long been the tradition of our nation to open federal, state, and local legislative sessions, as well as town and school board meetings, with an invocation asking God for divine guidance and blessing. People of faith must unite to encourage the school district and its board members to continue their support of this time honored tradition.”
It was during both of Na’s two terms as board president that the religious references during board meetings intensified. As a consequence of this ethos during Na’s second stint as board president, Cruz, who was elected to the school board in 2012, became much more assertive in making his own religious overtures, often layering in Biblical quotations during discussion of routine board items, including passages from Psalm 143:8; 2 Corinthians; 2 Galatians; Romans 15:6; and Galatians 5:22 & 23.
Irene Hernandez-Blair succeeded Na as board president. She is less overtly religious than Na, Cruz and Orozco and appeared to be steering the district toward middle ground on the religion-in-school issue. Under her watch, however, Cruz, at the July 16 board meeting heightened the controversy, holding forth on his views pertaining to inculcating in the district’s charges conservative and Christian values in a rambling 10 minute soliloquy, touching on parentage, race, exemption from school vaccinations and immigration. This created a firestorm of controversy that galvanized many of the plaintiffs in the suit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and animated others who were not involved in the suit, a number of whom called upon Cruz to resign. These critics also importuned the board to refrain from electing Cruz, who was board vice chair under Hernandez-Blair, as the new board president upon the sunsetting of Henandez-Blair’s term as president this month. The Chino Unified School District Board has a tradition of elevating the board vice president to president.
Whether the board would adhere to that call to keep Cruz from being given the school board president honor was seen as a test between the pro-religious contingent and those advocating keeping prayer and religion out of Chino’s public schools. In October, a sign of which was in ascendancy came when Hernandez-Blair, indicating she was facing threatened “reprisals” by remaining as board chair, declared she would resign as board chairman, effective immediately. She did not spell out what reprisals were aimed her way, but it was generally assumed that she was being targeted by those who disapproved of her unwillingness to stand up for keeping God in the classroom. Cruz was elevated by his colleagues to serve as acting/interim president at that time.
Last night, on December 10, as part of the board’s normally scheduled reorganization, Cruz was officially given the position of board president, Orozco was elevated to the position of board vice president and Pamela Feix was installed as board clerk.

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