School District Stands Up to Atheists

Earlier this year, we shared the news that Advocates for Faith & Freedom had agreed to represent the Chino Valley Unified School District in a high-stakes federal case involving the constitutionality of allowing an invocation at the start of school board meetings. The district asked us to represent its interests after a lower court judge declared its prayer policy unconstitutional. James Long, a staff attorney for Tyler & Bursch, LLP, is working on the case for us and has spent the entire summer diligently preparing james-long-boxbriefs for the federal appeal. With hundreds of hours already logged in this case, we expect to submit our opening brief to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals within 60 days. In addition to the official filing, numerous organizations will be supporting our effort through their own amicus briefs.

As you may recall, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) took exception to Chino Valley’s pre-meeting prayer policy and, in November 2014, filed a lawsuit seeking to block it. The anti-religious freedom group took the legal action despite the fact that just five months earlier the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of legislative prayers at city council meetings. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court sanctioned the practice as long as the city has a nondiscriminatory process in selecting volunteers who offer the prayers.

The significance—and possible ramifications—of the Chino Valley case has also garnered attention in scholarly circles. In a January 2015 article in The Journal of Law & Politics, author Marie Elizabeth Wicks explores how the Town of Greece ruling should also apply to local school district boards.

“Because school boards are deliberative public bodies and are nearly identical in structure to town boards like that in Town of Greece, school boards also should be allowed to solemnize the start of meetings with a brief prayer,” Wicks wrote in reference to our case.

FFRF is, in essence, trying to inoculate its position from the Supreme Court ruling by arguing that the presence of students at the board meetings shifts the focus of such gatherings from a business meeting to a school setting. But as writer Wicks rightly argued in her Journal of Law & Politics article, the presence of students in the audience does not negate the historical significance of such prayers, a key finding in the High Court case.

“The striking similarities between school boards and the Greece town board support the logical extension of the Town of Greece principles to school boards’ prayer practices,” Wicks wrote. “In both situations, an opening invocation acts to solemnize the occasion and is directed toward the board members.”

Chino Valley’s policy, which was adopted in 2013, does in fact allow all religious organizations an opportunity to participate and works to ensure equality in the process by sending out invitation letters to all religious assemblies in its area.

a judge hand striking a gavel over a table

The implications from the case are great and extend well beyond the Southern California school district. Not only is the issue of school district prayer the first of its kind to reach the 9th Circuit Court, but it is also the first case in the nation to reach the federal appeals level since the pivotal Town of Greece ruling.

While we have completed a great deal of legal research, much work still remains. This is where you can help partner with us to ensure that local school districts maintain the same rights the U.S. Supreme Court has already confirmed on town councils as “deliberative public bodies.” As you can imagine, the costs associated with mounting such a significant legal defense can escalate quite quickly. To that end, Advocates for Faith & Freedom is helping to underwrite the costs with the Tyler & Bursch legal team.

Would you prayerfully consider contributing to this vital cause for religious liberty? We can think of no more fitting way to help guide our educational policymakers than by ensuring they retain their constitutional right to begin their deliberations with the historical act of prayer.