Chino Valley school district’s prayer lawsuit may be over, but two school board members are upset that the appeal has ended and some community members are angry that a local church is not helping defray the costs of the legal battle as they feel was promised.
The lawsuit was filed by Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in 2014 against all five school board members but singled out trustees James Na and Andrew Cruz for making religious references during public school board meetings.
Speaking at the May 16 school board meeting, Chino Hills resident Lisa Greathouse, who has been a longtime critic of the religious references at board meetings, had strong words and some questions for Calvary Chapel Chino Hills.
She said the church had promised to help the district financially with the appeal of a 2016 legal judgment that included reimbursement to FFRF for legal fees and a ban on prayers from school board meetings.
Two other community members also spoke at the May 16 meeting, expressing similar views.
War chest promised
Addressing the school board members after the 2016 judgment, Calvary Chapel Pastor Jack Hibbs urged the board to “stay strong” and said the 10,000-member church would support a legal appeal financially.
“Some of those that would distract you from fighting for this right to prayer regarding invocations will cite money and I want to encourage you that the community is going to rise and create a war chest to do whatever is necessary,” he said at that time.
Calvary Chapel had been raising money through a defense fund called the "Let Us Pray Foundation" to offset the school district’s liability while it appealed the case for three years.
A GoFundMe account was set up to raise $300,000 “in the event the appeal is not successful,” according to a description on the fundraising website.
The Let Us Pray Foundation raised $143,745, including a single anonymous donation of $143,000.
The GoFundMe account is no longer active.
The school district recently paid $206,922 for the lower court award and an additional $75,680 for the appeal. The district will not seek reimbursement from the church.
Chino Valley school district public relations director Imee Perius said this week that the district would only have received the money if it moved the lawsuit as far as it could through the court system. She added that the board had been advised by their legal counsel sometime after 2016 that the money being raised by Let Us Pray Foundation was to pursue the lawsuit as far as legally possible.
Ms. Greathouse told the board May 16 “Over and over we heard this lawsuit wasn’t going to cost the district a dime. We heard it from board members, church officials and we even heard it from Chino Hills council member Art Bennett. My question is where is this money that was promised?”
Phone calls about the donations to Jack Hibbs and church director Gina Gleason, who set up the Let Us Pray Foundation GoFundMe account, were not returned.
Board members James Na and Andrew Cruz attend the church, and both provided statements to the Champion regarding the donations for the appeal.
Mr. Na said he doesn’t understand why the school board members chose not to continue the appeal to the Supreme Court as the legal firm Tyler and Bursch had recommended.
The Christian law firm has connections to Calvary Chapel and had been providing its services in the appeal without charge to the district.
“We had hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to cover all legal fees, and we would have been guaranteed more if we had stayed vigilant in protecting the freedom of speech given to us by the Constitution and continued our appeals to the Supreme Court,” wrote Mr. Na in the statement to the Champion.
Mr. Cruz said, “The money was set aside to move forward. We had time invested in this, it had been going on for years.”
FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel said the board members were not responsible for paying the award because they were sued in an official capacity rather than as individuals.