FFRF files for summary judgment in Calif. school board prayer case

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and 22 plaintiffs asked a federal court judge in California yesterday to rule against the Chino Valley Unified School District, which has a school board whose meetings “resemble a church service more than a school board meeting.”

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 complaint noted. “The purpose behind hosting prayers, reading from the bible, and proselytizing is, as Na stated at one meeting, to ‘urge[] everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him,'” the motion for summary judgment brief argues.

The motion also points out that the town’s reaction, fueled largely by the local mega-church pastor, Jack Hibbs, shows the unconstitutionality of the prayers. As other federal courts have noted, this shows that the school board meeting “attendees supported the prayers and do so because the prayers are closely intertwined with their religion.” In other words, the public outrage the church has encouraged actually helps to prove that the prayers are unconstitutional.

The facts in the case are settled, says FFRF’s brief, and the court should therefore rule on the case. “The Supreme Court has consistently struck down government organized prayers, bible readings, and proselytizing in the school context for more than 65 years,” notes the brief, and none of those decisions “turn[ed] on the language of a prayer policy, whether or not the prayers were sectarian, or who gave the prayers. No facts altered the unconstitutionality of government organized religious rituals in the public school setting.”

“Given these established facts, judgment as a matter of law is appropriate because they sufficiently show that the Defendant Board’s conduct violates the Establishment Clause and the religion clauses of the California Constitution,” says FFRF.

In its list of undisputed facts, FFRF points out to Judge Jesus G. Bernal that the board has a less-than-favorable view of judges; Na once prayed at a school board meeting that we “need [to] first look up to Jesus Christ for serving our students . . . because without that, we’ll be flawed just like those judges in superior court or on the local bench.”

The school board is represented by the Pacific Justice Institute, a Christian Right group whose representation for the school has been spotty. Previously, attorney Michael Peffer failed to show up for a scheduling conference. More recently, the group attempted to set up depositions two weeks after the discovery period had ended.

FFRF and the other plaintiffs are represented by Attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides and FFRF Staff Attorneys Andrew Seidel and Rebecca Markert.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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