The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit Nov. 13 against the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education, charging that its meetings in Chino, Calif., “resemble a church service more than a school board meeting.”
U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal, a Barack Obama appointee, is assigned to the case. FFRF, based in Madison, Wis., has more than 21,500 nonreligious members nationwide, including more than 3,360 in California.
Joining FFRF as plaintiffs are a district student, Doe 1, and parents Does 2 and 3, as well as a district employee, Doe 4. Since the suit was filed, FFRF has received a heartening outpouring of requests by Chino Valley parents and residents to join the suit, as well as additional complaints about other troubling state/church entanglements in the school district.
Area attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides is the plaintiffs’ attorney and will file an amended complaint adding a significant number of new plaintiffs. Currently there are 21 total. Chino Valley School Board meetings open with a prayer, which often includes bible readings and proselytizing by board members. Board President James Na injects Christianity into many official statements, FFRF’s legal complaint notes. At one typical meeting, 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.
Students often attend the meetings to receive awards, speak about issues affecting their schools, attend disciplinary hearings and give performances. Student attendance can be mandatory, and a student representative is a board member.
Courts have consistently held that organized prayer in the public schools is unconstitutional. Two federal appellate courts, the Third and Sixth Circuits, have specifically ruled school board prayer unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs “feel that the government is taking sides against them on religious questions,” and view the prayers, bible readings, and proselytizing as state-endorsed religion. The board is excessively entangled with religion, alleges the complaint, noting there is no secular or educational purpose for prayers, bible readings, or proselytizing. The suit charges this violates the Establishment Clause, the Equal Protection Clause and the California Constitution.
FFRF repeatedly tried to resolve the violations without litigation. FFRF originally contacted the board on Sept. 14, 2013, asking it to stop scheduling prayers. The board responded on Oct. 7, 2013, refusing the request.
The complaint asks the court to declare the board’s religious practices unconstitutional under both the federal and state constitutions and to permanently enjoin the board from any further school-sponsored religious exercises.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert and Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel are co-counsel. Kaloyanides won a lawsuit in February on behalf of the American Humanist Association, stopping the city of Lake Elsinore, Calif., from building a war memorial depicting a soldier kneeling before a Christian cross.
The Humanistas Seculares de Puerto Rico (Secular Humanists of Puerto Rico) held a protest on the steps of the Judicial Center of San Juan to object to the common government practice of displaying nativity scenes inside courthouses in Puerto Rico.
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is subject to the U.S. Constitution, including the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which separates religion from government. But in a place where, according to the Pew Research Center, 89% of people identify as Catholic or Protestant, and 99% profess belief in a god, the separation of church and state can be hard to enforce.
HuSe formally asked to display a secular message beside nativity scenes in all of Puerto Rico's courthouses. When they did not receive a response, 15 HuSe members took their sign to the Judicial Center of San Juan. The group reportedly wasn't allowed to go higher than the first steps of the building, despite past demonstrations being allowed in the courthouse lobby. The Dec. 23 protest garnered press coverage across Puerto Rico.
The sign contained a shortened version of FFRF's traditional holiday greeting in Spanish: "En esta época en que celebramos el Solsticio de Invierno deseamos que en nuestro pueblo reine primero la razón. No existen dioses, ni demonios, ni ángeles, como tampoco un cielo, ni un infierno. Solamente existe nuestro bello mundo natural."
The English version, coined by FFRF principal founder Anne Gaylor, reads, "At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
The Winter Solstice, which occurred Dec. 21 in the Northern Hemisphere, marks the shortest, darkest day of the year, signaling the rebirth of the sun and the natural new year. It's been celebrated for millennia with festivals of light, feasts, gift exchanges and the display of evergreens, which symbolize enduring life.
FFRF has sent several letters over the years objecting to state/church violations in Puerto Rico. Co-President Dan Barker, who is fluent in Spanish, often assists with translations. He praised the humanist group and Dr. Victor M. Rivera-Jimenez for their activism.
FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with more than 21,500 members nationwide, including members in Puerto Rico.