Chino Valley Unified School District Ordered to Pay Over $200,000 to Atheist Group

Freedom From Religion Foundation was awarded $202,970.70 in a religious case filed against the Chino Valley School District.

The Chino Valley Unified School District is a school district located in San Bernardino County, California. It serves 4 high schools, 5 junior high schools, 21 elementary schools, 1 continuation school, and 1 adult school. CVUSD is famous for its outstanding schools and programs. Recently, however, the CVUSD Board has been in the middle of a number of controversies.

The prominent one has been the lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), against the Board for violating the United States and California Constitutions in 2014. The suit alleged that the Board members, especially the Board President James Na, promoted religion (Christianity) during the Board meetings with the intention of religious proselytizing.

In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that local officials may open public meetings with prayers, as long as they do not discriminate against minority faiths, and do not force anyone to participate. Problems for the CVUSD Board started when they went one step ahead, and turned the whole meeting into one equivalent to that of a church service. Explicit Christian prayers and Bible verses became the norm of every meeting. According to the suit filed by FFRF, during one meeting, President James Na mentioned or discussed Jesus at least 10 times. It also stated that Na often included religion in his comments. The meetings were always closed with a Bible reading.

United States District Judge, Jesus G. Bernal, on February 18, 2016, said in a ruling that these prayers were considered unconstitutional, and instructed the CVUSD Board to put an immediate stop to it. The Board indeed put a stop to it, however, they also hired Tyler & Bursch, a Murrieta-based law firm, to challenge the ruling. Two months after the ruling, the same Judge has ordered the CVUSD Board, to pay a total of $202,971.70 to the FFRF for their attorney’s fees and other costs.

Judge Bernal specifically wants the three Board members, James Na (President), Irene Hernandez-Blair (Vice President), and Andrew Cruz (Clerk) to pay the amount. The Judge's orders definitely make it sound like the three Board members will have to pay the whole amount out of their own pockets, however, the FFRF had sued the Board as representatives of the District, so, end of the day, it will be the taxpayers who will be bearing the brunt of the order.

The Board will be appealing both the rulings. There is still a long way to go before all of this will be resolved.

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