Several religious liberty advocacy groups are supporting Chino Valley school district’s legal battle to overturn a court injunction and return sanctioned prayers to school board meetings.
A February 2016 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal banned prayers and proselytizing by Chino Valley school board members. The order also included a monetary judgment to The Freedom from Religious Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin nonprofit who filed the November 2014 lawsuit against five Chino Valley school board members.
“We are requesting reversal of the order in its entirety,” said Robert Tyler of Tyler & Bursch law firm.
The firm filed an April 26 appellate brief in the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeal.
Advocates for Faith and Freedom, the non profit organization of Tyler & Bursch, is raising funds to underwrite the legal fees.
Pastor Jack Hibbs of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills is associated with Advocates for Faith and Freedom. Board members James Na and Andrew Cruz attend his church and are named in the lawsuit for quoting Bible passages and making religious references at school board meetings.
The FFRF lawsuit was filed on behalf of district students, parents, and employees. It states the plaintiffs felt alienated at board meetings because of “prayers, Bible readings and proselytizing.”
Board members Irene Hernandez-Blair, board president Sylvia Orozco and former board member Charles Dickie, who has since moved to Nevada, are also named in the complaint. The injunction awards approximately $200,000 in reimbursement to FFRF for expenses, including attorney fees. At a special March 7, 2016 board meeting called for a vote to appeal the injunction, the board room overflowed with community members. Pastor Hibbs encouraged board members to stand firm.
“One of the things you’ve been tasked to do is to do the right thing,” he said. “The community is going to rise and create a war chest to help you.”
The board voted 3-2 to appeal the ruling, with members Pamela Feix and Mrs. Hernandez-Blair dissenting.
“This is a nationally significant case because a decision will be surrendered by the federal court of appeal,” Mr. Tyler said.
Jay Sekelow of American Center for Law and Justice, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, and Freedom, Law and Religious Practitioners, have filed amicus briefs in support of the district. Mr. Tyler said the case should be set for oral argument this fall.
The school board voted in November to adopt a bylaw that states that board members shall not proselytize, and shall be neutral towards religion or non-religion when acting in their official capacities and when speaking on behalf of the district.