The Freedom From Religion Foundation has won a significant federal court judgment against a California school board for its blatantly religious meetings.
U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal ruled on Feb. 18 against the Chino Valley Unified School District for overtly and consciously inserting religion into official proceedings.
"Finally, a Jesus I can believe in," wrote a commenter on an article in the San Bernardino County's Inland Daily Bulletin, playing off the name of the judge.
FFRF, along with 22 local residents, filed a lawsuit on Nov. 13, 2014, challenging the School Board's prayers, bible readings and proselytization at official gatherings. The district, which serves about 32,000 students, was ordered to pay court costs and plaintiff fees, which are currently about $200,000. On March 7 the School Board voted 3-2 to appeal the ruling, which means the suit could take another two years and cost between $350,000 and $500,000.
At one meeting, then-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.
The judge wasn't having it.
"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 o otherwise endorsing school-sponsored prayer in board meetings."
Reporters covering the lawsuit clearly had fun with their articles. David Allen of the Inland Daily Bulletin wrote: "After years of prayers and religious references at its meetings, the Chino Valley Unified School Board has been halted by a higher power: a federal judge."
And Mel Ewald of the Chino Champion wrote: "God and Jesus Christ were conspicuously absent from Thursday's meeting of the Chino Valley School Board."
FFRF obviously welcomes the ruling.
"Our plaintiffs told us the board proceedings were more like a church service than a school board meeting," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "So my reaction to the ruling is, 'Hallelujah!'"
The board tried to claim a legislative prayer exception, invoking the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 Greece v. Galloway decision. But Bernal called the argument "meritless," saying, "The legislative exception does not apply to prayer at school board meetings."
"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."
RMuse, a writer for the PoliticusUSA web site, backed FFRF: "For now, though, there is one public school district in California that is safe from theocrats, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and concerned parents who prevailed with absolutely no assistance whatsoever from even one 'Constitution-loving' politician."