Credit: Savio Sebastian

The Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education voted 3-2 Thursday night to fight a judge’s order to stop praying and proselytizing during the board’s public meetings.

Despite dozens of emails from parents in the district demanding that the board drop the issue, board members Andrew Cruz, James Na and Sylvia Orozco – all of whom attend the local megachurch that supports their public prayers – voted to appeal the prayer ban.

Naomi Minogue, a parent of two children in the district’s schools, has been fed up with the overtly religious tones of the meetings.

“Our children deserve to have your full attention on educational issues,” Minogue said she told the board before the vote. “You got into this to ensure our children have the best education possible, not to be spiritual leaders. Please don’t appeal the lawsuit.”

After warning the school board for more than a year to cease its prayers, Freedom From Religion Foundation joined local parents to sue in November 2014, after board members read Bible passages and called on the public to find Jesus. The school board hired the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative values law firm that promised to fight the suit free of charge, calling it a religious freedom issue.

Last month, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the school board’s meetings were “unconstitutional government endorsements of religion.” The board was ordered to immediately halt the Christian sermons and prayers.

Jack Hibbs, the pastor of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, encouraged the board to defy the order and appeal the decision. At the meeting Thursday night, he said “Congress has opened with prayer. We just saw Judge Scalia’s service in the Supreme Court and what did they do? They prayed.”

David Kaloyanides, a lawyer representing Freedom From Religion Foundation, said this lawsuit is “not about the law or what’s good for the district.”

“It’s one church influencing board members for their own aggrandizement to trumpet their own religious cause,” he said.

As a result of the judge’s February ruling, the school district is on the hook for thousands of dollars in legal fees, despite the free representation it received from the Pacific Justice Institute. The district owes Freedom From Religion Foundation almost $198,000 in legal fees so far, according to a court filing.

While the school board’s lawyer, Michael Peffer, promised he was all in to fight “atheist bullying,” questions have been raised about the quality of his counsel after he was nearly sanctioned last June for failing to show up at a court hearing for the prayer case.

Now, Chino Valley Unified School District officials must decide whether they want to foot the bill to hire an appeals lawyer to follow through on the board’s vote. They have several weeks to file official paperwork for an appeal. In the past, the Pacific Justice Institute has retained outside lawyers for appeals cases.

Kaloyanides estimated that if the board appeals, it could cost taxpayers another $100,000 to pay for his group’s legal fees. He said the first stage of an appeal would likely take more than a year, and he added that the board faces an uphill battle to persuade the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the district court’s ruling. After the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, he said, “the whole dynamic of appellate review changed.”

“Scalia was the extreme religion guy on the Supreme Court, and he was very hostile to the notion of keeping religion completely out of government,” Kaloyanides said. “And he was extremely hostile to the 9th Circuit. This gave the more conservative wing in the 9th Circuit more encouragement, and they issued opinions to catch Scalia’s eye. Well, that doesn’t exist anymore.”

No school board prayer case has ever reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and the only two federal appeals courts to take up the issue banned school board prayer, saying it violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

In 2011, a 3rd Circuit case from Delaware found that the Indian River School District board’s policy of opening meetings with prayers conveyed a message favoring religion. A 6th Circuit decision in 1999 found that prayers at the beginning of Cleveland school board meetings were unconstitutional.

The school board will hold a special board meeting Monday to discuss its next steps with the appeal.

Amy Julia Harris can be reached at aharris@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @amyjharris.

Amy Julia Harris

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.