Appeals Court Rules California School Board’s Prayers at Public Meetings Violate Establishment Clause

CHINO, Calif. — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling declaring that a California school board violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution by presenting predominantly Christian prayers during public meetings.

“The policy and practice of prayer at Chino Valley Board meetings violates the Establishment Clause. The scope of injunctive relief is appropriate, because it merely prohibits governmental action that violates the Constitution and does not infringe upon constitutional rights,” wrote a unanimous three-judge panel, consisting of Judges M. Margaret McKeown, Kim McLane Wardlaw and Wiley Y. Daniel.

All three judges were appointed to the bench by then-President Bill Clinton.

The ruling leaves in place an injunction prohibiting the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education “from conducting, permitting or otherwise endorsing school sponsored prayer in board meetings.”

As previously reported, the matter began in November 2014 when the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a 49-page lawsuit against the Chino Valley board. Among other practices, the organization took issue with the board’s custom of opening meetings with invocations, which they argued is a violation of the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.

“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.”

In 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal, appointed to the bench by Barack Obama, sided with FFRF, opining that the prayers at the school board meetings “constitute unconstitutional government endorsements of religion.” The ruling disappointed Mayor Art Bennett, as well as a number of local residents, who urged the board to appeal.

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“[The ruling is] a chipping away at every right we have,” Bennett told the Daily Bulletin. “The judge not only outlawed Scripture reading in the course of a meeting, he said the prayer at the start of the meeting is illegal. We’ve got to stand our ground and go forward. It’s a spiritual fight.”

The appeal consequently went forward, but on Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court decision, concluding that the prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“We hold that the Chino Valley Board’s prayer policy lacks a secular legislative purpose and therefore, … violates the Establishment Clause,” it wrote.

The three-judge panel said that the prayer practice was also violative because it leaves out minority religions and those with no faith at all.

“[R]oughly two percent of California’s population is Buddhist, two percent is Jewish, one percent is Mormon, one percent is Orthodox Christian, and one percent belong to religions besides Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Judaism. But, there are no religious communities from these traditions on the board’s list of eligible congregations,” it stated. “Far from highlighting the full range of religious diversity and beliefs, the invocation policy reinforces the dominance of particular religious traditions.”

“Atheists and agnostics comprise four percent and five percent of the California population, respectively. Neither the purpose of respecting religious diversity nor the means of doing so via prayer acknowledges or respects the beliefs of non-religious citizens in the district,” the panel remarked.

The court said that it declined to analyze the matter in light of the historical practice of legislative prayer because there wasn’t much public education at the time of the nation’s founding.

“We can make no inference as to whether the Framers would have approved of prayer at school board meetings in any context, much less in the factual circumstances at issue here, given the lack of free universal public education in the late 1700s,” the judges asserted.

Read the ruling in full here.

The board is expected to meet in the coming weeks to determine whether or not to appeal.

Adams

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.


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