Court denies rehearing to school district on religious exercise case

By Gabriel Neves | Dec 30, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO — A school district with religious practices in its policies—which were upheld by a district court—has obtained a victory in appeals.

U.S. Appeals Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain, on the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, issued a 26-page ruling on Dec. 26, affirming the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California's decision in the lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation against Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education, and board members James Na, Sylvia Orozco, Charles Dickie, Andrew Cruz and Irene Hernandez-Blair.

The court upheld the district court decision of denying a petition for rehearing the case, affirming that the religious practices did not constitute an establishment of religion.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the school district due to the practice of starting board meetings with prayers, as per the school district policy.

"Since 2010, the Board has included prayer as part of its meetings 'in order to solemnize proceedings of the Board of Education,'" the ruling said. The policy was adopted unanimously.

The school district stated, per the ruling, that it "invites clergy members and religious leaders to offer an invocation according to their own conscience in “a spirit of respect and ecumenism,” but requests “that the prayer opportunity not be exploited as an effort to convert others to the particular faith of the invocational speaker, nor to disparage any faith or belief different from that of the invocational speaker.”

In his ruling, Judge O'Scannlain stated that "the Supreme Court has long recognized the constitutionality of legislative prayer," as a school district was a legislative body. He also stated that the panel of judges went away from considering the Chino School District a legislative body, by stating that the meetings were "school setting," due to the presence of student board members, and then considering the prayer was a violation.

O'Scannlain laments the court of appeals' panel opinion.

"The panel’s stubborn contortion of the Board meetings here into a 'school setting' flies in the face of established Supreme Court precedent.  We have been told twice by the Supreme Court that the legislative prayer tradition is constitutional, and yet we insist on false distinctions to avoid the consequences of this conclusion. Because the panel failed faithfully to apply Town of Greece and Marsh, and because such error has now created a circuit split, it is deeply regrettable that this case was not reheard en banc," O'Scannlain said.

Judges Johnnie Rawlinson, Jay Bybee, Connie Callahan, Carlos Bea, Sandra Ikuta, Mark Bennett, and Ryan Nelson concurred to the opinion.

Bybee, Nelson, Callahan, and Ikuta partially dissented.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Case number 16-55425

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