Americans United is supporting the students, parents, employees and community members who are asking a federal appeals court to rule unconstitutional a California school board’s practice of opening public meetings with Christian prayers and proselytizing during those meetings.

AU last week filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of 20 members of the Chino Valley Unified School District. Our brief outlines how the board’s prayer practice violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishing or favoring a religion. The violation here is particularly bad because the board’s prayers and proselytization are coercive to impressionable schoolchildren who attend board meetings.

“As the Supreme Court and this Court have repeatedly held, students in the public schools are particularly susceptible to unconstitutional religious coercion: They face substantial pressure to conform to the norms and expectations of their school communities – and most especially to the expectations that are set and conveyed by school-district officials,” our brief notes. “Students face risks of bullying and harassment as religious dissenters. And they understandably fear retaliation from school officials and others should they take any action demonstrating their dissent, such as declining to participate in the prayers.”

Chino Valley children saw firsthand the community divisiveness the board’s prayer practice has caused. After the lawsuit was filed in 2014, community members – including a school-board member and his pastor – spoke out in favor of the prayers at five consecutive meetings, even though the issue was not on the agenda. This atmosphere would make it very difficult for schoolchildren, especially those of minority faiths or of no faith, to speak out or act in opposition to the policy. 

Students attend the board meetings for an array of reasons: to receive recognition and awards, to participate in presentations and performances, to voice opinions or hear discussions about district issues. Some children are required to attend the meetings, including the board’s student representative and students who academic fates are determined at disciplinary hearings.

“It is thus both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect Chino Valley schoolchildren to single themselves out to the Board, their teachers and administrators, other students, and the entire school community by walking out of a meeting or not participating in the prayers,” our brief notes. “And for students facing disciplinary action at the meetings, as well as for the student who officially serves as a member of the Board, walking out or not participating would be unthinkable.”

Prayers delivered at Chino Valley board meetings have been overwhelmingly Christian at least since 2010. When the plaintiffs asked the board to end the practice in 2013, the board declined to stop and instead formalized its prayer policy.

In addition to the opening prayers given by invited clergy, board members themselves often offer prayers or Bible readings at other points during the meetings. Board members have encouraged attendees to “look up to Jesus Christ,” to “know Jesus Christ” and to “focus toward the goal of pleasing Christ.”

They have also made religion-based political remarks. For example, in response to the Supreme Court decision granting marriage equality, a pastor delivering the opening prayer noted the “big mistakes” occurring in the country, followed by a school-board member declaring that marriage should only be recognized between one man and one woman.

“These sorts of official statements are not just divisive but hurtful to adopted children, LGBTQ students, and the children of gay parents,” AU’s brief notes. “Students who attend a School Board meeting to satisfy a course requirement, to take part in an activity, or merely to follow the debates about their education should not be forced to hear a Board member or official prayergiver condemn them or their families in the name of religious principles that they may not share.”

The brief was joined by 11 religious and civil-rights organizations and filed with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Chino Valley. AU and our allies ask the appeals court to confirm the opinion of a lower court, which already ruled that the school board’s prayer policy and practice is unconstitutional.

“The purpose of school boards is to ensure that public-school students thrive. School-board prayer does nothing to further that goal,” our brief concludes. “Quite the contrary: It sends an exclusionary message to students of minority faiths or no faith and divides the school community along religious lines, as it has in Chino Valley.”

AU’s involvement in the case is through our Operation Inclusion project, which aims to ensure legislative bodies that include prayers or invocations do so in a manner that is inclusive and supports diversity.