What does Supreme Court school prayer ruling mean for Chino Valley Unified? – San Bernardino Sun

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week may have ramifications in the Inland Empire.

On Monday, June 27, the court ruled 6-3 that a former Washington state football coach had a right to pray on the high school football field immediately after games. That was despite objections that Joseph Kennedy’s prayers, which happened with players, could look like an official religious observance and some students said they felt pressured to join in.

The case echoes one that didn’t make it to the Supreme Court.

Chino Valley Unified school board president Andrew Cruz and vice president Sylvia Orozco listen to public comment at the Chino Valley Unified School District office in November 2016. The two were among three school board members sued, along with the district, in 2014 for their use of prayer during public meetings. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a high school football coach could not be retaliated against by his school district for praying on the field after games. Now, Cruz said he expects prayer to return to Chino Valley Unified meetings in the future. (File photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

In 2014, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, representing two parents and 20 anonymous district employees, residents and children, sued the Chino Valley Unified School District, along with three school board members, over the board’s practice at the time of prayer and proselytizing.

Chino Valley Unified officially began opening board meetings with prayer in 2013, although the practice may go back to before 2010. The prayers expanded over time, and meetings began to “resemble a church service more than a school board meeting,” according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Board members read from the Bible and proselytized on the dais. Board member Andrew Cruz once discussed the Bible for 12 minutes mid-meeting.

A U.S. District Court judge sided with the foundation in 2016, finding that prayer at board meetings violated the First Amendment. The district lost again on appeal. Finally, a newly elected school board voted in January 2019 to not ask the Supreme Court to review the case. By then, the board had already voted to restrict its own use of prayer during meetings.

The case cost the district $282,602 in legal fees, then the equivalent of starting salaries for five and a half teachers.

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Cruz, who’s still on the school board, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision in the Washington state case. He was one of three board members, including current board member James Na and former board member Sylvio Orzco, sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“I’m happy,” he said Tuesday. “People have the right to express their faith without fear of reprisal. That’s important.”

In the Washington case, soon after becoming an assistant varsity football coach in 2008, Kennedy began offering a brief prayer on the field after games ended. When the Bremerton School District asked Kennedy to pray in private, he declined and kept dropping to one knee and praying on the 50-yard line. He invited journalists and a state legislator to watch him do so. The school district gave him a poor performance evaluation and, after the 2015 football season, did not renew his contract. Kennedy sued, saying he was being punished for expressing himself religiously.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation blasted the Supreme Court’s decision in a statement Monday, saying the “extremist supermajority” chose to “pander” to the religious community.

“Today’s ruling strikes yet another blow against the rights of conscience of students by an ultraconservative Supreme Court hell-bent on privileging religion,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, foundation co-president, is quoted as saying in the statement. “The extremist majority is signaling its hostility to more than 75 years of Supreme Court precedent ensuring that a captive audience of public school students are free from religious indoctrination, ritual and coercion.”

The foundation wrote that Monday’s decision does not give educators the right to force their religious views on students.

“Any coaches or teachers that think this decision gives them free rein to abuse their position and impose prayers on a captive audience of students would be sorely mistaken,” Patrick Elliott, the foundation’s senior counsel, said in a statement.

Cruz, a member of the evangelical Calvary Chapel Chino Hills megachurch, said the court’s decision is a win for members of any faith tradition: “It could be anybody. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists.”

Cruz said he intends to ask Superintendent Norm Enfield at the board’s July 21 meeting to confer with district legal counsel on how the Supreme Court’s decision affects conduct by Chino Valley Unified staff and elected officials.

“Obviously, we’ve got board members who are so different than me,” he said. “But I’m interested in seeing how the superintendent and attorney will interpret this decision.”

Chino Valley Unified had no comment at this time, spokeswoman Andi Johnston said Wednesday.

“We have not had the opportunity to confer with legal counsel at this point, so it is unclear what changes, if any, there would be,” school board President Christina Gagnier, a First Amendment attorney, wrote in an email on Wednesday.

But Cruz believes that prayer is headed back to Chino Valley Unified school board meetings, either now, or after the Nov. 8 election. Gagnier and Joe Schaffer, two board members who had been skeptical about the district’s five-year legal battle to defend board members’ religious expression in meetings, are both up for reelection.

“What’s the difference between a coach and me?” Cruz asked.

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