CHINO, Calif. – A California judge has ordered a public school district to stop allowing prayers at its board meetings and is demanding that the school district reimburse the atheist activist group that filed suit for all court costs and plaintiff fees.
In November of 2014, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a 49-page lawsuit against the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education. As previously reported, the FFRF routinely opposes public displays of Christianity, including prayers by a high school football coach, a public Ten Commandments monument, cross decals on police officer vehicles, and a poster in a county clerk’s office promoting biblical marriage.
FFRF’s most recent efforts against the five-member Chino school board stem from the board’s practice of opening meetings with invocations. These prayers, the atheists argued in court, are a violation of the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.
“The Chino Valley School Board begins each meeting with a prayer,” they state in their lawsuit. “Indeed the meetings resemble a church service more than a school board meeting, complete with Bible readings by the board members, Bible quotations by board members, and other statements by board members promoting the Christian religion.”
The FFRF argued that the “blatantly religious” school board prayers violated both the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution. In a letter to the board of education, one of the FFRF’s attorneys described the invocations at “unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive.”
The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a non-profit organization committed to defending religious freedom, stood with the Chino school board and defended the prayers in court. PJI President Brad Dacus said “some of the board members are very committed to their faith” and argued that their religious freedoms were protected by law.
“In a free society we can’t have freedom from religion but freedom of religion, and that’s what this lawsuit’s all about,” Dacus told One News Now.
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of invocations at government meetings, a U.S. district judge on Thursday sided with the FFRF, saying the prayers at the school board meetings “constitute unconstitutional government endorsements of religion.”
“[M]embers of the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education … are hereby enjoined from conducting, permitting or otherwise endorsing school-sponsored prayer in oard meetings,” District Judge Jesus Bernal wrote in the ruling.
Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s Greece decision, Bernal said, “The legislative exception does not apply to prayer at school board meetings.”
FFRF members celebrated the district court’s decision.
“This stops some of the bleeding from the Greece decision and is a welcome reaffirmation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state,” said FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel in a press release.
Others believe the atheists’ activism is not upholding the Constitution but rather undermining values and practices that have long been integral to the nation’s history.
“The FFRF has a track record of filing lawsuits that are not firmly grounded in existing law but rather try to change the law to conform to their philosophical views,” Dacus said in a statement.