A California school district that held board meetings which included Christian prayers and Bible verses has been sued by an atheist group. The court ruled that the district must immediately cease the meetings and pay the group more than $200,000 for their legal fees.
Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group that advocates for the separation of church and state, filed a lawsuit in 2014 against the Chino Valley Unified School District in San Bernardino County, claiming that the district's board had held meetings with the intention of promoting Christianity, reports World Religion News.
The school board meetings began with a prayer, and frequently included proselytizing by members and readings of Bible verses, according to a statement from FFRF released when the organization filed its lawsuit. At one meeting that FFRF called typical, Board President James Na "urged everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him," and another member of the board read a Psalm.
Students would regularly attend the meetings to receive award and honors or to attend disciplinary hearings, and student attendance was sometimes mandatory, FFRF said. A student representative also served as one of the members of the board.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that public meetings are allowed to open with prayers, as long as the meeting does not discriminate against members of minority faiths, and as long as no one is obligated to participate. FFRF argued that the school district was "excessively entangled in religion," and that the prayers and proselytizing had no secular or education purpose, and violated the First Amendment's Establishment clause, which guarantees the separation of government and religion.
In February, Judge Jesus Bernal, who presided over the case, ruled that the prayers and Bible verses recited at the meetings were unconstitutional and ordered the district to stop immediately. Two months later, the judge also ordered the board members to pay the FFRF's attorney and legal fees, totaling $202,971. The board plans to appeal both rulings in court.
FFRF said that it had tried more than once to resolve the issues without suing the district. The group said that it contacted the board in 2013 to ask them to stop opening their meetings with prayers, but that the board refused their request.