The Freedom From Religion Foundation has won a judgment against a California school board for its blatantly religious meetings.
U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal ruled against the Chino Valley Unified School District for overtly and consciously inserting religion into official proceedings. FFRF filed a lawsuit along with 22 local residents on Nov. 13, 2014, challenging the School Board's prayers, bible readings and proselytization at its official gatherings. 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.
On Thursday, Bernal issued his decision in favor of the state/church watchdog organization.
"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 court ordered the School Board to pay court costs and plaintiff fees.
The board tried to claim a legislative prayer exception, invoking the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 Greece decision. But Bernal called the argument "meritless," saying, "The legislative exception does not apply to prayer at school board meetings."
The court 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."
He added, "Regardless of the stated purpose of the [prayer] resolution, it is clear that the board uses it to bring sectarian prayer and proselytization into public schools through the backdoor."
FFRF welcomes the ruling.
"This stops some of the bleeding from the Greece decision," says Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, "and is a welcome reaffirmation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state."
"Our plaintiffs told us the board proceedings were more like a church service than a school board meeting," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "So my reaction to the ruling is, 'Hallelujah'!"
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit with 23,000 nonreligious members, including more than 3,000 individuals in California.