FFRF urges Calif. school district to keep prayer out of board meetings

Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District logo

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting that the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified Board of Education not open meetings with prayers.

At its Nov. 14 meeting, Board President Shawn Youngblood asked Yorba Linda Mayor Gene Hernandez to lead a prayer to start the meeting, a local community member informed FFRF.

The state/church watchdog has taken issue with this entanglement of religion and public school service, and is urging the board not to infringe attendees’ constitutional rights any further.

“The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Youngblood. “If the board continues opening its meetings with prayer it will subject the district to unnecessary liability and potential financial strain.”

FFRF won a court challenge in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against a regular prayer practice by Chino Valley (Calif.) Unified School District Board of Education. The court reaffirmed that Establishment Clause concerns are heightened in the context of public schools “because children and adolescents are just beginning to develop their own belief systems.” It ordered the district to pay more than $200,000 in attorney fees and costs.

Students and parents have the right — and often reason — to participate in school board meetings, FFRF points out. It is coercive, insensitive and intimidating to force nonreligious citizens to choose between making a public showing of their nonbelief by refusing to participate in the prayer or else display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their school board members clearly do.

Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. However, the board ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion or coerce attendees into participating in religious exercise, which alienates the 37 percent of Americans who are non-Christians, including the nearly one in three Americans who now identifies as religiously unaffiliated.

In order to protect the First Amendment rights of parents and students of the district, FFRF is demanding that the district refrain from further unconstitutional opening prayers.

“Board members and the mayor can pray on their own time and dime,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor says. “The school board exists to focus on educational, not religious, issues facing students and parents regardless of their belief or lack thereof.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 5,200 members and two chapters in California. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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Freedom From Religion Foundation

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