FFRF, parents, score appeals court victory against praying Calif. school board

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation, with 22 parents, students and employees of the Chino Valley School District (Calif.), today won a major victory before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against prayer at public school board meetings.

FFRF’s lawsuit challenged the practice of prayer at Chino Valley School Board’s meetings, which resembled church revivals more than public meetings. These meetings opened with prayer and regularly included board members reading from the bible and proselytizing.

“The board’s prayer policy and practice violate the Establishment Clause,” a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit ruled unanimously. “We hold that the Chino Valley Board’s prayer policy lacks a secular legislative purpose and therefore, under Lemon, violates the Establishment Clause. Accordingly, we uphold the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the Foundation on this claim,” ruled M. Margaret McKeown, Kim McLane Wardlaw, circuit judges, and Wiley Y. Daniel, district judge for Colorado, sitting by designation.

Then-Board President James Na injected Christianity into many of his official statements to parents and students at meetings. For instance, at one 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.

“These prayers typically take place before groups of schoolchildren whose attendance is not truly voluntary and whose relationship to school district officials, including the Board, is not one of full parity,” the appeals court ruled. “Because prayer at the Chino Valley Board meeting falls outside the legislative-prayer tradition, we apply the three-pronged test first articulated in Lemon v. Kurtzman for determining whether a governmental policy or action is an impermissible establishment of religion.”

The court differentiated school board prayer from other forms of governmental prayer — a major issue before the court: “Unlike a session of Congress or a state legislature, or a meeting of a town board, the Chino Valley Board meetings function as extensions of the educational experience of the district’s public schools. . . . Prayer at school board meetings cannot be understood as part of the historical tradition of legislative prayer identified in Marsh and Town of Greece.” 

U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal ruled in FFRF’s favor on Feb. 18, 2016, 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, pressured by a local megachurch to which three board members belong, voted 3-2 to appeal the decision.

The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit was not impressed: “The prayers frequently advanced religion in general and Christianity in particular.”

In an acknowledgment of the presence of nonbelievers in California, the court also emphasized how discriminatory the prayer practice was toward secular local residents.

“The purpose of respecting religious diversity, to the extent that it does not encompass nonreligious belief systems and their diversity, is itself constitutionally suspect,” it stated. “Atheists and agnostics comprise 4 percent and 5 percent of the California population, respectively. Neither the purpose of respecting religious diversity nor the means of doing so via prayer acknowledges or respects the beliefs of nonreligious citizens in the district.”

In another matter, the court addressed the practice by a rogue school board member, following FFRF’s district court victory, of sneaking in opening prayer during the public comment period. “It is therefore appropriate for the injunction to restrain board members from acting during the public-comment period to further school-sponsored prayer, and to prevent others from giving the school’s imprimatur to prayer at that time,” the appeals court added.

“Reason — and the Constitution — have prevailed,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “This serves as a warning against the other school boards out there that they cannot use their public position to impose religion on other people’s children and parents.”

Bernal already ordered the school board to pay more than $200,000 for the initial case, now costs and fees associated with the appeal will add significantly to that number. FFRF and the plaintiffs are represented by Attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides, FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert and FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel. The case is FFRF v. Chino Valley Unified School District is No. 16-55425. 

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Freedom From Religion Foundation

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