LOS ANGELES (CN) – A school board in Southern California cannot begin meetings with Christian prayer or recite Bible verses, a federal judge has ruled.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation challenged the practice of prayers before the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education’s meetings in a 49-page complaint filed in November 2014, in which it claimed “the meetings resemble a church service more than a school board meeting, complete with Bible readings by board members, Bible quotations by board members, and other statements by board members promoting the Christian religion.”
Claiming that this practice violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the principle of separation of church and state, the foundation sought a permanent injunction to end the prayers and proselytizing.
Founded in 1860, the Chino Valley Unified School District serves approximately 32,000 students in the cities of Chino, Ontario, and Chino Hills in San Bernardino County. It has four high schools, five junior high schools and 23 elementary schools, several of which have been recognized for outstanding performance.
In October 2014, the district’s board of education unanimously passed a policy to allow voluntary prayers from community clergy members before meetings, though it included stipulations that those present did not have to participate and that any prayers offered did not reflect an expression of the board’s preference for any religion or denomination.
But several board members have offered opening prayers rather than clergy members. Members have also read Bible passages and made religious statements during meetings, according to U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal’s recitation of the “undisputed facts” in the case.
These religious statements include urging non-Christians to accept Jesus Christ; telling people to “have hope in Christ; saying that “I would just like to thank God for sending his son Jesus Christ so our sins would be forgiven but have eternal hope, and we’ll stay together as we were on this earth but in eternal life in heaven” during a meeting; and telling the audience that “if we have confessed our sins and ask God’s forgiveness, we simply need to keep a forward focus toward the goal of pleasing Christ.”
Students also attend these meetings for various reasons, including Junior ROTC members presenting the colors, students giving presentations to the board, or those who attend for disciplinary reasons.
Parents often go to meetings with their children. Several of them sued on behalf of their minor children, along with at least two district employees, who sued anonymously to avoid retribution from the board.
In opposing the complaint, the board argued that all of the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because they could not prove an actual, concrete injury. It also claimed the board members have legislative immunity for any past speech.
But Bernal sided with the plaintiffs, finding the prayers unconstitutional.
“We’re very pleased because it’s exactly what we wanted,” plaintiffs’ attorney David Kaloyanides of Chino told Courthouse News. “The judge did the right thing. Schools are different. And the school [board] here was way out of line.”
Though a plaintiff must do more than observe that the government is committing a constitutional violation to have standing in an Establishment Clause context, “[t]he psychological feeling of being excluded or denigrated on a religious bases in one’s own community is enough,” Bernal wrote in his ruling.
Here, father Larry Maldonado and his child testified that Christian prayers at meetings offend their beliefs, and that they shouldn’t have to endure them to engage in school business.
Bernal shot down the board’s argument that the plaintiffs did not establish an actual injury because they did not leave meetings due to prayers or mute the television during a prayer, noting that the plaintiffs need not remove themselves from an offending environment to prove injury, nor must they, “as defendants absurdly suggest, be driven to insomnia, anger or psychiatric care.”
As long as they are students or parents of students who wish to attend these meetings, they are likely to come in contact with government-endorsed religion and suffer actual offense, which they already have, Bernal said.
As for the legislative immunity claim, Bernal dismissed it as “meritless” because the board offered no evidence that prayers and Bible verse recitations are integral to its deliberative process. Since they are not legislative activities, immunity does not apply, Bernal wrote.
Nor does the board enjoy full immunity under the 11th Amendment, which protects states from suit in Federal Court. Though the amendment bars the plaintiffs’ state and federal claims and claims for nominal damages, their claim for declaratory and injunctive relief against the board members in their individual and professional capacities will advance along with their motion for attorney’s fees and court costs, according to the ruling.
The defendants’ claim that this is not a school prayer case but a case like the recitation of prayers before the opening a state legislature fall flat because public school boards revolve around public school education, according to the ruling.
Students who attend meetings are not mere observers, but active participants. Thus, “the power imbalance between the state and the students is even more pronounced than at football games or graduations. The student who has come before the board is unlikely to feel free to dissent from or walk out on the body that governs, disciplines, and honors her,” Bernal wrote.
The U.S. Supreme Court established a two-prong test to determine whether a school board’s prayer policy violates the Establishment Clause: whether the prayer policy has a secular purpose, and whether it has the effect of endorsing religion. Failure on either prong means failing the entire test, Bernal said.
Bernal found that the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education failed both prongs because its members’ overtly religious, proselytizing statements muddy the waters of secularity and serve to promote Christianity via the meetings.
However, the judge dismissed with prejudice the plaintiffs’ claims against Charles Dickey, who is no longer a member of the board.
Bernal ordered the board to stop reciting religious prayers and making proselytizing statements at board meetings, and said the plaintiffs are entitled to court costs and attorney’s fees to “vindicate violations of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.”
Margaret Chidester of Irvine argued for the defendants, and did not immediately return emailed requests for comment sent Tuesday morning.
Attorney Kaloyanides told Courthouse News that the board has already appealed, and is confident that his case can withstand Ninth Circuit scrutiny.
Things are also interesting on the political side of the matter, he said.
The board hired a new attorney, Robert Tyler with Tyler & Bursch of Murrieta, to handle its appeal. Tyler serves as general counsel for Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a Christian nonprofit firm that is “dedicated to protecting religious liberty in the courts,” according to its website.
In an interesting twist, Advocates for Faith & Freedom is associated with Jack Hicks, pastor of the Cavalry Chapel Chino Hills, where several members of the board also go, Kaloyanides said.
Three of the board members are up for reelection, including two of the most vocal proselytizers at meetings, James Na and Andrew Cruz, who are also members of Cavalry Chapel, Kaloyanides said.
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