FFRF stops school board prayer in Chino Valley, Calif. (December 26, 2018)

On November 13, 2014, FFRF filed a lawsuit in the Central District of California, Eastern Division, against the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education, whose meetings “resemble a church service more than a school board meeting.” There was such an outpouring of support that FFRF amended its complaint on December 15th to add eighteen plaintiffs, for a total of twenty-two. The plaintiffs consist of families with students in the school or school employees who have had the prayers foisted on them.

School board meetings opened with a prayer, and often included bible readings and proselytizing by board members. Board President James Na injected Christianity into many of his official statements, FFRF’s legal complaint noted. 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 do performances. Student attendance is mandatory in some instances, and a student representative is a member of the board.

FFRF was represented by Attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides, who won a lawsuit in February 2014 on behalf of the American Humanist Association, which stopped the city of Lake Elsinore, Calif., from building a war memorial depicting a soldier kneeling before a Christian cross. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert and Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel served as co-counsel on the case.

The complaint asked 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. U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal, an Obama appointee, handled the case (Case No. 5:14-cv-02336).

On February 27, 2015, CVUSD retained new counsel, the Pacific Justice Institute.

FFRF filed a motion for protective order to keep the plaintiffs’ identities confidential and protect them from retribution. Pitzer College professor Phil Zuckerman, the foremost expert on secular demographics and sociology, offered testimony to support FFRF’s motion. PJI opposed the protective order initially, then changed course and stipulated to the pseudonyms. The court granted the plaintiffs’ request and ordered that pseudonyms be used for the case.

FFRF press releases: 

FFRF and the other plaintiffs moved for summary judgment and submitted a memo to support that motion on Sept. 28, 2015. Plaintiffs argued that the legislative prayer exceptions in cases like Marsh v. Chambers and Town of Greece v. Galloway do not apply in the school context. Instead, the court ought to analyze this case as it would any other school prayer case. Defendants opposed this motion, but Plaintiffs had the final say in their reply.

On October 2, 2015, the defendants made a cross-motion for summary judgment, which plaintiffs opposed.

In November, 2015, the Court ordered additional briefing on the issue of standing, raised by the defendants. FFRF submitted a supplemental brief in support of standing to the court at the court’s request. The defendants objected to this submission, even though they were able to reply and dispite the court asked for the briefing.

On February 18, 2016, the Court ruled in FFRF’s favor, finding that “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.”

The school board voted to appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a controversial 3-2 vote at a contentious school board meeting. The defendants filed their official notice of appeal on March 16, 2016.

On March 31, the court ordered the district to pay more than $200,000 in attorney’s fees and costs.

On July 25, 2018 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against prayer at public school board meetings.

In August 2018, the school board asked the entire Ninth Circuit to rehear the case in a petition for rehearing or rehearing en banc. FFRF opposed that motion in its September 17, 2018 reply brief.

At the last minute, the Orange County School Board tried to intervene and take the case to the Supreme Court. FFRF opposed the intervention, the Ninth Circuit agreed with FFRF and shot down their attempt to delay the final resolution of the case.

Freedom From Religion Foundation