U.S. 9th Circuit Court Confirms Ruling Against Chino School Board’s Call For Devotion

The Chino Valley School Board’s testing of the extreme parameters of religious freedom, which already failed with a judgment against it in federal court when it was sued over escalating its ceremonial prayer sessions at the opening of its meetings into proselytizing sessions, has now lost again at the level of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court. It is a yet open question as to whether it will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the matter.
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 Christian 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.
Although all board members and the district collectively 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.”
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.
The case went before Federal Judge Jesus Bernal, who on February 18, 2016 issued an encyclical in which he rejected the Pacific Justice Institute’s arguments 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. Bernal ordered the Chino Unified School District Board to discontinue its overt and constant references to Christianity during its public meetings and refrain forthwith from inserting religion into official proceedings.
“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 board had claimed its actions are protected by the legislative prayer exception, and volunteer chaplains could be permitted 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.”
Bernal 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 awarded the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s legal team $202,425.00 in attorney’s fees and $546.70 in costs to be paid by the district.
Despite that setback, Na, Cruz and Orozco, buttressed by Hibbs and the parishioners at Calvary Chapel, were persuaded to fight on, dispensing with the representation of the Pacific Justice Institute and on March 7, 2016 opting to be represented by another Christian advocacy attorney, Robert Tyler of the Murrieta-based law firm Tyler & Bursch, to handle their appeal of Bernal’s ruling.
In pursuing the appeal, the school board reasserted its rights to proselytize during public forums, hinging its argument on the basis of the 2014 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway. In the Greece case the Supreme Court held that public officials can open public meetings with prayers — even explicitly Christian ones — if the government agency does not discriminate against minority faiths when choosing who may offer a prayer and the prayer does not coerce participation from nonbelievers. Nevertheless, in the majority opinion in the Greece case, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy made clear that prayer was acceptable only when it is offered “during the ceremonial portion of the town’s meeting. Board members are not engaged in policymaking at this time, but in more general functions, such as swearing in new police officers, inducting high school athletes into the town hall of fame, and presenting proclamations to volunteers, civic groups, and senior citizens. It is a moment for town leaders to recognize the achievements of their constituents and the aspects of community life that are worth celebrating.”
On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Bernal’s 2016 ruling.
9th Circuit Judges M. Margaret McKeown and Kim McLane Wardlaw and Colorado Dist. Judge Wiley Y. Daniel said the Chino Valley school board must desist in incorporating prayers, proselytizing and the citation of Christian Scripture as elements of its meetings. The court noted the frequent presence of children at the meetings who are obliged to attend because of presentations or participation in the items being taken up by the board. The proselytizing could have an undue influence on them, the panel said. “These prayers typically take place before groups of schoolchildren whose attendance is not truly voluntary and whose relationship to school district officials, including the board, is not one of full parity,” according to the decision, which stated that the school board meetings fulfill a further “function as extensions of the educational experience of the district’s public schools.”
Though the Greece decision on which the district based its appeal made clear that all religious affiliations had to be respected in such prayer sessions if they were to be conducted, the predominant number of the school district religious references were Christian one, slighting other religious minority groups within the district such as Buddhists, Jews, and Moslems as well as atheists and agnostics.
According to the 9th Circuit Court, the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limits the degree to which believers of one faith can conscript others to go along with its rituals in a public setting, and it held that the board can solemnify its proceedings without the Christian references.
“The Establishment Clause, grounded in experiences of persecution, affirms the fundamental truth that no matter what an individual’s religious beliefs, he has a valued place in the political community,” the 9th Circuit said.
Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply