The pastor of a southern California mega-church is entangled in local school board politics — again.

Last week, the Chino Valley Unified Board of Education vowed to continue its legal fight to pray and proselytize during its public meetings. A U.S. district court judge ordered the board to stop in February, saying the public prayers amounted to “unconstitutional government endorsements of religion.”

The board enlisted Christian law firm Tyler and Bursch to appeal that order this week. The group’s nonprofit arm, Advocates for Faith and Freedom, promised to defend the board free of charge and “promote the gospel of Jesus Christ by protecting, defending and advocating religious civil liberties.” The firm has defended men who were reading the Bible in front of a local DMV, pushed school districts to allow students to share Bible verses in the classroom, and defended a Christian preschool that fired employees for not signing a statement of faith.

Jack Hibbs, the evangelical pastor of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, is a director of Advocates for Faith and Freedom, according to the nonprofit’s filings. His relationship with Robert Tyler, the head of the Advocates for Faith and Freedom, goes back years. Hibbs even invited Tyler multiple times to join the interview show he hosts.

It’s the latest example of the close relationship between the public board of education and the local mega-church.

Hibbs has long encouraged the Chino Valley school board members to break down the barriers between church and state by sharing their faith during public school board meetings. He endorsed three of the current board members, all of whom attend his church, from the pulpit during his Sunday services — in violation of federal election rules that prohibit religious groups from directly participating in political campaigns.

When James Na ran for re-election on the school board in 2012, Hibbs not only endorsed him at church but turned to social media to encourage the 10,000-member congregation to vote for a fellow church member, saying a vote for Na would be a vote for God.

“All you need to do is be on God’s side when voting – It’s easy. … Vote for the best person for the job like … James Na,” Hibbs wrote on his personal Facebook page to his nearly 13,000 followers.

Na and another mega-church-goer, Andrew Cruz, took their mission seriously, and prayed and proselytized for years during meetings. Some district parents sued the board in November 2014, saying the calls to find Jesus and frequent Bible readings were illegal.

Since then, Hibbs has mobilized his congregation — he calls them his “prayer warriors” — to encourage the school board to fight the prayer suit. According to local media outlets, hundreds of congregants from Calvary Chapel attended the school board meeting this week, holding up white cards with a one word message: “Pray!”

The school board has consistently said that hiring pro-bono lawyers won’t cost taxpayers. But the school district will be on the hook for thousands of dollars in legal fees if it loses. After fighting and losing a bid to teach “intelligent design” in public schools in 2005, the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania had to pay $1 million in legal fees.

After the Chino school board lost its prayer case last month in district court, a judge ordered the school district to pay $200,000 in legal fees. If the board continues to appeal, it could be on the hook for at least $350,000 in legal fees, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The odds that the appeal will succeed are slim: 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 prayer at board meetings, saying it violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

March 21 is the board’s deadline to file an 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.