CHINO, Calif. — A school board in California has voted to place limits on when and how Christianity may be discussed during public meetings.
The move by the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education comes in the midst of a legal battle with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which took issue two years ago with the board’s practice of opening meetings with prayer, as well as numerous incidents of members citing the Bible.
“As the elected legislative body of the Chino Valley Unified School District, the board of education recognizes that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees each person’s individual right to free exercise of religion or non-religion, and prevents the government and other public officials from establishing a religion or non-religion,” its new policy, approved unanimously on Thursday, reads.
“During the public portion of the board meeting, board members may discuss religion or religious perspectives to the extent that they are germane to agenda items or public comments,” it states. “When acting in their official capacities and when speaking on behalf of the district, board members shall not proselytize, and shall be neutral toward religion and/or non-religion.”
Attorneys for the board had reportedly recommended adopting the language.
“The Chino Valley School Board begins each meeting with a prayer,” FFRF wrote in its legal challenge. “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 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.
But in February, U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal, appointed to the bench by Barack Obama, sided with 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 board meetings,” Bernal ordered.
The board appealed and obtained new legal counsel—Tyler and Bursh of Murietta.
“I trust this is a good first step toward balancing and understanding the complexities of the First Amendment for this board,” Vice President Sylvia Orozco told reporters last week following Thursday’s vote to approve the new policy.
As previously reported, throughout America’s early history, a number of the Founding Fathers issued proclamations calling inhabitants to prayer, including in 1798, when President John Adams proclaimed a national day of humiliation, prayer and fasting.
“As the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgment of this truth is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him,” he wrote, “…this duty, at all times incumbent, is so especially in seasons of difficulty and of danger, when existing or threatening calamities—the just judgments of God against prevalent iniquity—are a loud call to repentance and reformation.”
President Abraham Lincoln also proclaimed a National Fast Day in 1863.
“[I]t is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord,” his proclamation read.
“[I]nsomuch we know that by His Divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people,” Lincoln said.