The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a prominent national state/church watchdog, filed a federal lawsuit yesterday 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," FFRF contends.
FFRF, based in Madison, Wis., has more than 21,500 nonreligious members nationwide, including more than 3,360 in Caifornia.
School board meetings open with a prayer, and often include bible readings and proselytizing by board members. Board President James Na injects Christianity into many of his 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 do performances. Student attendance is mandatory in some instances, and a student representative is a member of the board.
Courts have consistently held that organized prayer in the public schools is unconstitutional, the complaint charges. Two federal appellate courts, the Third and Sixth Circuits, have specifically held school board prayer unconstitutional.
Joining the Freedom From Religion Foundation as plaintiffs are a district student, Doe 1, and parents Does 2 and 3, as well as a district employee, Doe 4. Additional students, families, and employees in the district who are interested in joining as anonymous plaintiffs should contact FFRF.
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. FFRF contends this violates the Establishment Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and the California Constitution.
FFRF repeatedly attempted to resolve these constitutional violations without litigation. FFRF originally contacted the board on Sept. 14, 2013, asking it to stop scheduling prayers at its meetings. The board responded on Oct. 7, 2013, refusing the request.
FFRF is represented by Attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides, who won a lawsuit in February 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 are co-counsel on the case.
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.
U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal, an Obama appointee, is handling the case (Case No. 5:14-cv-02336).