During a January 2014 meeting of the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education, then-board President James Na urged onlookers to surrender themselves to God and said to “everyone who does not know Jesus Christ, go find him.” Credit: Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education

A Southern California school board no longer will be allowed to pray, proselytize or read Bible passages during its public meetings.

A district court today ruled that the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education’s meetings, which featured calls to “find Jesus” and convert members of the public, were “unconstitutional government endorsements of religion.” Judge Jesus G. Bernal of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ordered the board to immediately stop its school-sponsored prayers.

“This is a resounding victory, and it shores up the law of separation between state and church in our public school system,” said Andrew Seidel, a lawyer for Freedom From Religion Foundation, the group that brought the suit against the school district.

Parents like Michael Anderson, who sued the board, had long complained about the school board’s outsize focus on religion.

“They are so unbelievably over the top with the praying and proselytizing, and it’s inappropriate,” Anderson told Reveal last April. “The most insulting thing to me is that the board pushes dogma on everyone else in the community, and they’re not being inclusive of everyone’s religious beliefs.”

In a statement, the Chino Valley Unified School District said that it “respects the decision of the Court, and after evaluating it carefully, will decide on its next steps.”

Chino Valley school board meetings often sounded more like Sunday sermons than humdrum discussions of budgets and teachers.

“For the past week, I’ve been hearing in my mind: ‘I can only imagine seeing the glory of God and dancing with Jesus,’ ” Andrew Cruz, currently the board’s president, said from the dais during an October 2013 meeting. He then quoted 1 Corinthians: “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scripture, and he was buried and he was raised on the third day, according to the Scripture.”

After warning the school board for more than a year to cease its prayers, Freedom From Religion Foundation teamed up with local parents to sue the board in November 2014. The school board fought the suit, calling it a religious freedom issue.

They hired the Pacific Justice Institute, a pro bono conservative rights law firm, which said the district would not be “cowed by atheist bullying.” The board also had heavy support to continue their prayers from the local megachurch, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, some of whose 10,000-member congregation attended the district’s schools.

Michael Peffer, the lawyer for the school board, did not respond to calls for comment.

As a result of today’s court ruling, the Chino Valley Unified School District, which in the past has faced serious budget shortfalls, will be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Freedom From Religion lawyers estimate that the district could pay out at least $200,000.

Lisa Greathouse, whose children graduated from the school district, long questioned the board’s “promoting their religious agenda.” She said she’s not surprised by today’s decision but thinks “the money spent on legal fees could have been much better spent in the classroom.”

The school board meets tonight, but thanks to the judge’s ruling, it will not be allowed to open its meeting with a prayer for the first time in years.

Corrections: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date of the ruling in the lawsuit against the Chino Valley school board. The U.S. District Court handed down its decision today. The story also misstated Andrew Cruz’s title – he is president of the school board – and had the wrong first name for Lisa Greathouse. 

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Amy Julia Harris is a reporter for Reveal, covering vulnerable communities. She and Reveal reporter Shoshana Walter exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting and won a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also led to four government investigations, including two criminal probes and four federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery and fraud.

Harris was a Livingston Award for Young Journalists finalist for her investigation into the lack of government oversight of religious-based day cares, which led to tragedies for children in Alabama and elsewhere. In a previous project for Reveal, she uncovered widespread squalor in a public housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area and traced it back to mismanagement and fraud in the troubled public housing agency.

Before joining Reveal, Harris was an education reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. She has also written for The Seattle Times, Half Moon Bay Review, and Campaigns and Elections Politics Magazine.