Reluctantly, CVUSD Trustees Contemplate Less Religiosity

Eight months after a federal court ruling that rebuked the Chino Valley Unified School District’s practice of permitting and even promoting Christian proselytizing, the school board is reluctantly inching toward adopting a policy that will reduce, at least somewhat, the overtly religious character of the board’s proceedings.
Members of the school board, in particular James Na, Andrw Cruz and Sylvia Orozco, have made no secret of their deeply-held Christian beliefs and have not been shy about making overt public expressions of their faith, opening meetings with religious invocations, breaking into spontaneous religious homilies, reciting biblical verses, and telling those in attendance that they need to “find Jesus” if
they have not already.
Na, Cruz and Orozco are members of the Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills, where the Reverend Jack Hibbs is the pastor. Hibbs evinces a denominationalist attitude, which holds that Christians have a duty to take over public office and promote their religious beliefs from the bully pulpit they occupy.
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.”
In November 2014, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, on behalf of two named plaintiffs, Larry Maldonado and Mike Anderson, and 21 unnamed plaintiffs filed suit against the district, asserting 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 sought the cessation of religiosity as an element in the district’s conducting of business.
The district was defended by attorneys from the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit conservative legal defense organization that specializes in religious freedom, and subsequently by the Murrieta-based law firm Tyler & Bursch.
In February of this year, U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal told the board to refrain forthwith from inserting religion into official proceedings and ordered the Chino Unified School District Board to discontinue its overt and constant references to Christianity during its public meetings. Bernal rejected the defendants’ claims that the board majority’s celebration of its beliefs 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, which were subsequently determined to be $202,971.70.
“The legislative exception does not apply to prayer at school board meetings,” Bernal stated, reasoning 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.”
At this week’s board meeting, the board made a gesture toward coming into permanent compliance with Bernal’s order, although many believe district officials are not going far enough in separating God from government. Indeed, elements of the policy the board took up has language of an unmistakable face-saving nature that seems to miss the concept Bernal propounded.
The board considered, but did not adopt, the proposed board policy.
According to a staff report, a policy relating to “Public Statements Regarding Religion or Non-Religion” is to have this preamble: “As the elected legislative body of the Chino Valley Unified School District, the board of education recognizes that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees each person’s individual right to free exercise of religion or non-religion, and prevents the government and other public officials from establishing a religion or non-religion.”
In getting down to brass tacks, the proposed policy says, “During the public portion of the board meeting, board members may discuss religion or religious perspectives to the extent that they are germane to agenda items or public comments,” without clarifying how a religious topic might be germane to the operation of Chino Valley’s schools. The language does, nonetheless envision a change from the atmosphere that previously attended board meetings. “When acting in their official capacities and when speaking on behalf of the district, board members shall not proselytize, and shall be neutral toward religion and/or non-religion,” the policy states.
The board is to consider the policy for adoption next month.

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