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Judge To California School Board: Stop Praying, Proselytizing During Meetings

Leaders in a California school district won't be opening and closing their meetings with prayers anymore after a federal judge told them they were breaking the law.

On Feb. 18, U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal told the Chino Valley Unified school board to stop “reciting prayers, Bible readings and proselytizing at board meetings," according to the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.

Bernal got involved after several plaintiffs, including the Wisconson-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, sued the school district in 2014.

“Their meetings resemble a church service more than a school board meeting,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the Bulletin at the time.

Several teachers, students and parents of children in the Chino Valley school district were plaintiffs in the case, which argued that school board members were proselytizing regularly at school meetings, leading prayers, and invoking religious scripture while conducting daily business for the district.

The lawsuit cited examples in which school board President James Na discussed Jesus 10 times in one board meeting and other board members read Bible verses, the San Bernardino County Sun reports. School board members also allegedly invoked religious texts and parables while addressing issues like violent crime in the area.

The district serves about 32,000 students in San Bernardino, a county of more than 2 million people in southeastern California. The majority of the county's religious identify themselves as Roman Catholic, according to the University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture. San Bernardino also has large numbers of Evangelical Protestants, while less than 20,000 of the county's residents identify as Muslim, Buddhist or other religions.

Bernal denied the school board's request for a legislative prayer exception that would have allowed school leaders to continue praying publicly, the FFRF noted in its Feb. 19 press release.

"The risk that a student will feel coerced by the board's policy and practice of religious prayer is even higher here than at football games or graduations," the judge said, according to the press release. "The School Board possesses an inherently authoritarian position with respect to the students. The board metes out discipline and awards at these meetings, and sets school policies that directly and immediately affect the students' lives."

FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel called the decision "a welcome reaffirmation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state."

The Chino Valley Unified School District has 30 days to decide whether or not to pursue an appeal. So far, the district has not publicly commented on the possibility of an appeal, according to the Bulletin.

Sources: Freedom From Religion Foundation, San Bernardino County Sun, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (2), USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture / Photo source: Chino Valley Unified School District

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