Lawyer for School District Accused of Endorsing Christianity Fails to Show Up at Mandatory Court Hearing June 13, 2015

Lawyer for School District Accused of Endorsing Christianity Fails to Show Up at Mandatory Court Hearing

Last year, I posted about the Chino Valley Unified School District (in California), where Board of Education meetings resembled church services.

That’s not an exaggeration at all. Here’s just a snippet of what a meeting looked like:

Board of Education President James Na

… CVUSD Board of Education President James Na said [at a meeting] “our lives begin in the hospital and end in the church, and urged everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him.” Mr. [Andrew] Cruz “closed by reading Psalm 143.”

In fact, there’s a Bible verse read at most meetings:

We’re not even talking about a generic God (which still wouldn’t be okay). We’re talking about the Christian one.

For that reason, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit against the district back in November.

The plaintiffs “feel that the government is taking sides against them on religious questions,” and view the prayers, bible readings, and proselytizing as state-endorsed religion. The board is excessively entangled with religion, alleges the complaint, noting there is no secular or educational purpose for prayers, bible readings, or proselytizing. FFRF contends this violates the Establishment Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and the California Constitution.

FFRF repeatedly attempted to resolve these constitutional violations without litigation. FFRF originally contacted the board on Sept. 14, 2013, asking it to stop scheduling prayers at its meetings. The board responded on Oct. 7, 2013, refusing the request.

So what happened after FFRF filed the lawsuit?

In January, the Board of Education voted 3-2 in favor of finding an attorney to “defend the board without pay” against the legal challenge, clearly not realizing that while Christian legal groups won’t charge them, the school district will be on the hook for FFRF’s legal fees when they lose. (And the school district will lose.)

To make matters worse, board member Andrew Cruz invoked the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris to defend prayers:

At the end of the meeting, Cruz expressed his dismay at the leadership of the country and encouraged people to examine American leadership in light of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

“What is happening today, what the terrorists are doing, but what is really important is that you can’t look at the direction of the terrorist, you’ve got to look at the direction of our leaders because what our leaders are doing is they are eroding our rights and they’re also moving away from God,” Cruz said. “It’s so bizarre when you really think about it, that a century ago they had people who were promoting freedom, our rights, and now things have changed dramatically.”

I have no idea what any of that means… it’s basically a word salad made of right-wing talking points.

In April, Amy Julia Harris of the Center for Investigative Reporting published an article taking a closer look at just how close this school board is to a local megachurch:

The [lawsuit] has set the group of parents against the school board and the celebrity pastor of Chino Hills’ 10,000-member Calvary Chapel, which is dedicated to breaking the church-state barrier.

“Whether people like it or not, religion is part of the fiber of America,” Pastor Jack Hibbs told Reveal. “And we encourage our congregation to speak the truth in the public square.”

When Na ran for re-election in 2012, Hibbs endorsed him at church and turned to social media to encourage his congregation to vote for their fellow church member, saying a vote for Na would be a vote for God.

“All you need to do is be on God’s side when voting — It’s easy. … Vote for the best person for the job like … James Na,” Hibbs wrote on his personal Facebook page, which has nearly 13,000 followers.

It’s really bad over there. And it just got worse for the District.

When they went searching for lawyers, they settled on help from the Pacific Justice Institute, one of several high-profile conservative Christian legal defense groups, because PJI said they would represent the District at no cost. (Like I said, though, if the District loses, they’ll still have to pay FFRF’s legal fees.)

Turns out the District is getting exactly what it paid for:

The Chino Valley Unified School Board risks losing its case after the board’s attorney, failed to show up at a court hearing Monday in over a lawsuit alleging the board violated the separation of church and state at its meetings.

The hearing was a mandatory scheduling conference on the case brought in November. But the board’s attorney, Michael Peffer, of the Pacific Justice Institute, was a no-show.

Peffer said he’d take care of the issue and everything will proceed on track — we’ll see about that — but if this is a mark of his professionalism, the District may lose the case on the basis of incompetence… before losing it on the merits.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier. Thanks to Brian for the link)

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