The Chino Valley school board voted 3-2 Wednesday night to petition the United States Supreme Court to review the recent Ninth Circuit Court decision upholding a 2016 ruling that prohibits sanctioned prayers and religious references from being said at board meetings. 

Following a 2½-hour closed session Wednesday, board members James Na, Andrew Cruz, and Sylvia Orozco voted in favor of the petition. Irene Hernandez-Blair and Pam Feix opposed it.

The petition asks the U.S. Supreme Court for a review that may include a rehearing by the Ninth Circuit appellate court. In law, an en banc session (French for “in bench”) is a session in which a case is heard before all the judges of a court rather than by a panel of judges selected from them. 

En banc review is often used for unusually complex cases or cases considered to be of greater importance, according to several legal websites.

Chino Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) Superintendent Norm Enfield said the special board meeting was held this week to beat a 14-day deadline to file the en banc petition.

The law firm Tyler & Bursch, LLP, which has handled the district’s appeal of the 2016 ruling, will continue to provide legal services to the district for free. However, the district is liable for any of the plaintiff’s legal costs if it loses the case. The district is currently liable for the plaintiff’s attorney fees, including approximately $200,000 in costs awarded by U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal in 2016 when he ruled that the Chino Valley school board’s practices of praying, proselytizing and Bible reading during meetings violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which covers governmental establishment of religion.

The Let Us Pray Foundation, associated with Calvary Chapel Chino Hills has raised more than $100,000, to help defray any legal costs the district may incur in the case, according to Gina Gleason, the church’s director of faith and public policy. Ms. Gleason said Let Us Pray Foundation will continue to hold fundraisers for the effort. No funds have yet been distributed to the district because the case is still in the appeal process, board member Mrs. Orozco said.

Rulings by Judge Bernal in 2016 and on July 26 by the Ninth Circuit Court stem from a November 2014 lawsuit that singles out board members James Na and Andrew Cruz for religious references made during the period of 2010 to 2013 and names them, Mrs. Orozco and Mrs. Hernandez-Blair, and former board member Charles Dickie as defendants. Mrs. Hernandez-Blair, who said Wednesday she is not opposed to prayer, has voiced her disapproval of Bible readings and other religious comments made during meetings by Mr. Na and Mr. Cruz.

Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a non-profit organization located in Wisconsin, opposed the board members and represents several plaintiffs that include some students in the district, their parents, and some Chino Valley Unified School District employees. A judge ruled that their names not be made public. The only publicly identified plaintiffs are CVUSD parents Larry Maldonado and Michael Anderson.

“This is not a lawsuit about allowing prayer,” Mrs. Orozco told the Champion this week. “But rather a lawsuit to allow us to continue the long-standing tradition of invocation at the beginning of board meetings, an opportunity afforded to all faiths of our community.”

She said the board approved a policy in November 2016 that prohibits board members from proselytizing when speaking on behalf of the district and in their official capacities. That policy does allow the board to discuss religion or religious perspectives “to the extent that they are germane to agenda items or public comments.” The policy was adopted following Judge Bernal’s ruling against the board members’ practices of prayer, Bible reading, and proselytizing.

The board also established a policy in October 2013, detailing how invocations at board meetings are handled.

This week, Mr. Cruz said “The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, does not reflect the multitudes of Californian family values and laws. Eighty percent of the Ninth Circuit Court appeals has been overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court, which begins its sessions with a prayer ‘God save the United States and this honorable court,’ understands that prayer is a part of our country’s history and government establishments.”

The other three board members, Mr. Na, Ms. Feix, and Mrs. Hernandez-Blair, did not respond to the Champion’s requests for comment.

Following the decision, hundreds of local residents took to social media, some condemning and some praising the decision.

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