Education

California School District’s Pro-Prayer Policy Shot Down By US Appeals Court: ‘Cannot Use Their Public Position To Impose Religion’

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Zachery Schmidt Contributor

The 9th U.S. Federal Appeals Court said the Chino Valley School District in California must discontinue its practice of inviting religious leaders to lead in prayer during its meetings.

The July 25 per-curium opinion in the Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Chino Valley United States District case said the prayer policy violated the Establishment Clause because “these prayers typically take place before groups of schoolchildren whose attendance is not truly voluntary and whose relationship to school district officials, including the Board, is not one of full parity.

The court deemed the injunction ordered to stop the prayer practice as appropriate because it prevents the government from infringing upon people’s constitutional rights.

The board argued the prayer practice fell under the 1983 Marsh v. Chamber case’s legislative-prayer tradition. The opinion said, “Prayer practice [that] fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures is not subject to typical Establishment Clause analysis.”

The ruling says elementary and high school students at these meetings made presentations on their accomplishments and highlight their school activities to the board members and everyone else who attended the meetings.

The court noted the large presence of students in settings controlled by public school authorities was not the same as the legislate-prayer setting. The judge also noted the Chino Valley students could be influenced with “mimicry and coercive pressure.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) brought this suit against the school district in 2014 because the foundation believed its religious policy violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Previously, a U.S. district judge sided with the foundation in 2016. The judge ruled permitting religious prayer in board meetings, and the policy and custom of reciting prayers, Bible readings and proselytizing at board meetings, constitute unconstitutional government endorsements of religion in violation of plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.”

Prayer at these school board meetings had been going on since 2010, but Chino Valley School District adopted an official policy in 2013. This ruling permitted “an invocation at each Board meeting and providing a means for the Board to select the prayer-giver,” according to the ruling.

Board members believed religious engagement to be “central to the mission and life of the school community.” The ruling cites meetings from 2013–2015, when board members read Bible verses and repeated Christian beliefs. Andrew Cruz, a school district board member, is on record 14 times reading Bible verses to the audience, according to the ruling.

The school district’s superintendent kept a list of eligible local religious leaders. The policy towards these clergy leaders was “first come, first serve” and a variety of religious leaders could lead the meeting in prayer.

“Reason — and the Constitution — have prevailed,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said. “This serves as a warning against the other school boards out there that they cannot use their public position to impose religion on other people’s children and parents.”