Schools Aren’t Pulpits, Judge Tells CVUSD

A federal judge has ordered the Chino Unified School District Board to discontinue its overt and constant references to Christianity during its public meetings.
U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal ruled against the Chino Valley Unified School District, instructing its board refrain forthwith from inserting religion into official proceedings.
Bernal’s encyclical follows fifteen months of legal sparring over the blatantly religious references members of the Chino School Board engage in during official district meetings and proceedings.
On November 13, 2014, 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 the insistence of some district officials to engage in so-called Christin witnessing, including “prayers, Bible readings and proselytizing.” At one typical meeting, Board President James Na “urged everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him,” after which another board member closed with a reading of Psalm 143.
The plaintiffs asked for an injunction against the intrusion of religiosity into the conducting of district business
Na and his board colleagues Andrew Cruz and Sylvia Orosco 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.
Although all board members collectively and the district were identified as defendants, the suit cited Na and Cruz for their routine practice of quoting Biblical passages and making other religious references.
Na and 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 2015 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.”
The Pacific Justice Institute, however, made little headway in convincing Bernal that the district’s policy of celebrating the beliefs of a majority of the board did not violate the plaintiffs’ rights to attend district board meetings and participate in other district and school functions without being subjected to an intensive round of religious advocacy.
“The court finds… permitting religious prayer in board meetings, and the policy and custom of reciting prayers, Bible readings, and proselytizing at board meetings, constitute unconstitutional government endorsements of religion in violation of plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights,” Bernal wrote. “Defendant board members are enjoined from conducting, permitting or otherwise endorsing school-sponsored prayer in board meetings.”
The court ordered the school board to pay court costs and plaintiff fees.
The board had claimed its actions are protected by the legislative prayer exception, and as defendants invoked the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway decision. In the Town of Greece v. Galloway case, the United States Supreme Court held that the Town of Greece, New York could permit volunteer chaplains to open each legislative session with a prayer
But Bernal called the argument “meritless,” saying, “The legislative exception does not apply to prayer at school board meetings.”
The court held that the nature of the school board made it even more imperative that it not break down the constitutional wall between state and church.
“The risk that a student will feel coerced by the board’s policy and practice of religious prayer is even higher here than at football games or graduations,” Bernal stated. “The school board possesses an inherently authoritarian position with respect to the students. The board metes out discipline and awards at these meetings, and sets school policies that directly and immediately affect the students’ lives.”
Bernal added, “Regardless of the stated purpose of the [prayer] resolution, it is clear that the board uses it to bring sectarian prayer and proselytization into public schools through the backdoor.”
Judge Bernal’s ruling was made as part of a summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. Bernal awarded the Freedom From Religion Foundation “costs including reasonable attorney’s fees.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation hailed the ruling.
“This stops some of the bleeding from the Greece decision,” said staff attorney Andrew Seidel, “and is a welcome reaffirmation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”
“Our plaintiffs told us the board proceedings were more like a church service than a school board meeting,” said Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “So my reaction to the ruling is, ‘Hallelujah’!”
District officials declined a request by the Sentinel for their reaction to Judge Bernal’s ruling.

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