Religion

Megachurch helps California school board blur church-state divide

During a January 2014 meeting of the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education, then-board President James Na urged onlookers to surrender themselves to God and said to “everyone who does not know Jesus Christ, go find him.” Credit: Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education

Bible verses, calls to accept Jesus and the promise of eternal life can be heard in two disparate places in a southeastern suburb of Los Angeles: the Calvary Chapel Chino Hills megachurch and the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education.

Three of the five school board members worship at the evangelical church on Sundays; two of them continue praying and preaching during the board meetings on Thursdays.

“Our lives begin in the hospital and end in the church,” then-board President James Na said during a meeting in January 2014, according to a video of the meeting. He urged onlookers to surrender themselves to God and, to “everyone who does not know Jesus Christ, go find him.”

Some parents in the district say such proselytizing belongs at church, not at the school board. Parents first raised concerns about the prayers in September 2013 – a few months before Na encouraged people to find Jesus – contacting the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin nonprofit atheist group that opposes entanglements of church and state. The group sent board members a letter notifying them that they were violating federal laws.

That didn’t stop the public praying.

“For the past week, I’ve been hearing in my mind: ‘I can only imagine seeing the glory of God and dancing with Jesus,’ ” Andrew Cruz, currently the board’s vice president, said from the dais during an October 2013 meeting, a month after the atheist group’s letter landed. He drove that point home with a quote from 1 Corinthians: “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scripture, and he was buried and he was raised on the third day, according to the Scripture.”

From fights over how to legally teach the Bible in public schools to bills allowing prayers in the classroom, school boards in pockets of the country still are grappling with where to draw the line when it comes to religion in public education. The Chino Valley school board now is embroiled in a lawsuit that promises to be a flashpoint in the nation’s divide over religion.

The fight 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.”

The U.S. Supreme Court first ruled against school-sponsored prayer in the landmark 1962 case Engel v. Vitale. Since then, courts have consistently banned classroom prayers or Bible readings organized by public schools. But last year, the high court ruled that city councils are allowed to open their meetings with Christian prayer, and past Supreme Court rulings have allowed state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to pray before sessions.

To Calvary Chapel – as to other conservative religious organizations around the country – that seeming inconsistency offers an opening.

Hibbs also actively embraces a conservative movement to bring politics into Sunday church services, frequently – and illegally – urging his congregation to vote for specific anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage and pro-Israel candidates.

In exchange for not paying taxes, religious groups are banned from participating directly or indirectly in political campaigns or making statements endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

Hibbs turns that restriction on its head, inviting candidates to his church and then telling the congregation that he’s not legally allowed to endorse anyone during the church service from “behind the pulpit.”

“So then I just walk in front of the pulpit, bless the candidate and say how great he or she is and that I’m voting for them, and then go back behind the pulpit,” Hibbs said.

Some in the community have complained about the church’s endorsements to the Internal Revenue Service, but so far, nothing has happened. In the 60 years since the ban on church electioneering has been on the books, only one church has lost its tax-exempt status for involvement in politics.

Getting the blessing of the giant church, which says it has 8,000 registered voters, matters in the Chino Valley school district, where the highest vote-getter in the 2014 board election received 11,341 votes.

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.

Hibbs also turned to social media to encourage people to vote for Cruz, who was elected to the school board in 2012, and he endorsed Sylvia Orozco, who was re-elected in 2014, at a church service at Calvary Chapel Chino Hills. Cruz, Orozco and Na would not comment for this story.

“Every time we do these endorsements, that candidate has won,” Hibbs said. “The only time it didn’t work was for (Barack) Obama and (Mitt) Romney.”

While the church’s candidates don’t always win, they do make up the majority of the current school board. As a result, the school board often follows where Hibbs has led from the pulpit: The board passed a resolution opposing same-sex marriage in 2008, spearheaded a Bible class as an elective several years ago and opposed a state law intended to protect transgender public school students.

School board sued

When board members didn’t stop praying, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit in November accusing the Chino Valley school board of trying to convert members of the public to a certain brand of Christianity through its opening prayers, Bible readings and proselytizing from the dais.

“They are so unbelievably over the top with the praying and proselytizing, and it’s inappropriate,” said Michael Anderson, a parent with two children in the district who is among those suing the school board. “The most insulting thing to me is that the board pushes dogma on everyone else in the community, and they’re not being inclusive of everyone’s religious beliefs.”

In February, the board aligned itself with the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit conservative Christian law firm that takes religious liberty cases pro bono, to defend the board’s right to pray. Elsewhere, the institute has fought for the right to home-school students, supported the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and defended public school students who have started campus Christian groups.

The Southern Poverty Law Center designated the Pacific Justice Institute as a hate group in 2014 for its views on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Brad Dacus, the institute’s president, once defended a pastor who called gay people “abominations” and said the Bible said they should be to be stoned to death.

Michael Peffer, the lawyer from the Pacific Justice Institute who took on the school board case, says the district will not be cowed by what he calls atheist bullying.

“We applaud the district for not giving in to this arm twisting for every mention of God in this system,” he said.

Although the board claims that using the institute will save taxpayers thousands of dollars, the lawyer for the Freedom From Religion Foundation offers a caveat: “If the board loses, they will be on the hook for all our legal fees,” Andrew Seidel said.

In other religious liberty cases, school districts have had to pay millions after they lost cases, even though they were defended pro bono. After fighting and losing a bid to teach “intelligent design” in public schools in 2005, the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania had to pay $1 million in legal fees.

And based on recent history, the odds of success are slim. No school board prayer case has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and the only two federal appeals courts to take up the issue banned school board prayer, saying it violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

A 2011 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals case from Delaware found that the Indian River School District board’s policy of opening meetings with prayers conveyed a message favoring religion. A 6th Circuit decision in 1999 found that prayers at the beginning of Cleveland school board meetings were unconstitutional.

Still, dozens, if not hundreds, of school boards in America do open their meetings with prayer.

In 2014, the Freedom From Religion Foundation received 29 complaints about prayer in public school board meetings. The group estimates that for every complaint it receives, 50 go unreported. At school board meetings in Mesa, Arizona, board members allow prayers before meetings. Boards in Virginia and Pennsylvania also opened their meetings with prayer last year.

Nationally, there has been continued pressure to get not only prayer, but also the Bible itself into the public school system.

Last year, the 15-member, majority Republican Texas State Board of Education approved dozens of social sciences and history textbooks despite objections that the books greatly exaggerated the influence biblical figures such as Moses had on the Founding Fathers.

In 2013, Mississippi required public schools to create policies that allow students to broadcast prayers over school intercoms and pray at assemblies and sporting events.

These laws typically have followed in the wake of conservatives being elected to state legislatures, then tapping into parental worries of moral decay.

Church’s political involvement

Every election, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills hands out questionnaires to local and state candidates, then passes out the responses to its congregation. The questionnaires typically cover many of the religious right’s hot-button national issues rather than local topics.

In 2014, for example, the church asked all the school board candidates what they thought about a ban on abortion and Jews’ right to Israel and their views on marriage.

These surveys come from the church’s activist arm, the Watchmen Ministry, named after a verse from Isaiah that reads: “I have set watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; They shall never hold their peace day or night. You who make mention of the Lord, do not keep silent.”

Na is active in the group, whose website says it is designed to “promote a biblical worldview in all spheres of society, culture, and public policy.”

First elected to the school board in 2008, Na, a local business owner, was selected by the board to serve two stints as president. During his tenure, religious issues have made regular appearances.

Parents critical of Na say he frequently prays at high school graduation ceremonies, “abusing his position of authority and turning them into Christian sermons,” said Lisa Greathouse, whose two children graduated in 2009 and 2013.

In 2010, Na spearheaded a successful campaign to reintroduce the Bible into public schools as a history and literature course, with the help of the Watchmen Ministry, according to Calvary Chapel Chino Hills.

The Chino Hills congregation heavily lobbied the school district to get the Bible course approved as an elective for seniors. Church members raised and donated $4,326 to the school district to pay for the 75 textbooks for the class, according to Chino’s Champion Newspapers.

The proposal for the Bible class came as the district was facing a potential $30 million deficit and was slashing some of its more rigorous course offerings, according to local news reports.

In videos from the Aug. 5, 2010, board meeting, Hibbs’ congregation can be seen flooding in to support the Bible as part of the curriculum. During the meeting, Hibbs stood up to dismiss concerns that the Bible curriculum “somehow endorses or indoctrinates children regarding the Christian faith.”

“We’re talking about bringing back the Bible,” Hibbs said during the public comment period. “We’re going back to our roots. The first educational book at Harvard and Yale (universities) was the Bible.”

The audience erupted in applause and cheers.

“I’m concerned that it’s anti-God everything nowadays, and I feel like if our youth don’t have moral teaching or foundation, how else would they be taught?” Cherie Pondoff, a community member, said during the meeting. “The only thing that taught me the highest values was learning from the Bible. The Bible teaches you not to kill, not to commit adultery and to abstain from sex before marriage. Isn’t that what’s lacking in our teenagers today?”

The board unanimously approved the Bible course, becoming at least the fifth school district in California that year to offer the curriculum, according to Peffer, the lawyer for the board. Schools in the Long Beach Unified School District, Murrieta Valley Unified School District, Capistrano Unified School District and Fallbrook Union High School District all had Bible classes in 2010.

The course’s textbook, “The Bible and Its Influence,” is a product of conservative Christian activist Chuck Stetson and his nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, the Bible Literacy Project. The group says the textbook allows schools to study the Bible academically while respecting the separation of church and state.

Across the country, “The Bible and Its Influence” has been adopted by 580 schools in 43 states, according to the Bible Literacy Project’s website. In 2007, the Alabama State Board of Education made it an approved textbook, which allows the state to buy it with taxpayer funds.

The book has come under fire from both religious and secular groups, but it has not faced any legal challenges, according to the Bible Literacy Project. Some critics say that there is theologizing in the text and that it downplays the human origins of and contributions to the Bible, while many evangelical critics say it is anti-biblical and demeans God.

At the board meeting, Chino Valley Superintendent Wayne Joseph supported the class and stressed that it would be taught responsibly.

“We have to make sure that we don’t have teachers who are proselytizing religion, but teachers who aren’t debunking or debasing the Bible,” Joseph said. “If the teachers teach this correctly, there will be no problem.”

But parents said there were problems – a lack of interest chief among them.

At one board meeting in September 2010, Greathouse said about a dozen students had enrolled in the Chino Hills High School Bible class, while Advanced Placement classes were overcrowded.

“It seems to me that what is unfair is that taxpayers are being forced to continue funding an elective that should never have been allowed to begin with, with such an unacceptably low enrollment, while our budget crisis is forcing the elimination of classes and programs and putting our students at a tremendous disadvantage with incredibly high class sizes,” Greathouse said at the meeting.

Interest in the class remains low, even though it later was expanded to include juniors. This year, three of the four high schools that offered the class canceled it when not enough students signed up.

The Chino Valley school district is also one of at least 15 programs in California that has used a little-known legal loophole to get Bible classes in public schools through a program called released time.

About 300 students from 22 elementary schools in the district get permission from their parents to skip their public school classes for an hour once a week to attend religious classes. Those classes are sponsored by Calvary Chapel Chino Hills and taught by church volunteers on shuttle buses parked just outside the school grounds.

Opposition to transgender protection law

In 2013, the school board again followed the lead of the Calvary Chapel church.

After Gov. Jerry Brown signed a transgender protection bill into law in August, Hibbs, along with the Pacific Justice Institute and other conservative groups, rallied support on the Internet to overturn what he dubbed the “co-ed bathroom bill,” saying it was “an affront to God.” The law requires public schools to allow students to use school bathrooms and locker rooms based on the gender with which they identify.

“Jesus said that we are to defend the innocent,” Hibbs said in his video excoriating the law. “God forbid that on our watch we would allow our kids to be exposed to such a terrible law that has been put forth.”

In October 2013, in the midst of Calvary Chapel’s campaign, the Chino Valley school board voted 4-1 to pass a resolution opposing the law. The resolution was purely symbolic, to express the board’s concerns about the issue.

Hibbs and Calvary Chapel gathered more than 46,000 signatures in an attempt to overturn the law through a 2014 ballot initiative. Statewide, the petition fell 17,276 signatures short.

The school board’s current concern is the prayer lawsuit.

After news broke in November that the board was being sued to stop praying, Hibbs again kicked into gear the activist congregants he calls his “prayer warriors.”

“It has long been the tradition of our nation to open federal, state, and local legislative sessions, as well as town and school board meetings, with an invocation asking God for divine guidance and blessing,” read one of the fliers passed out at Calvary Chapel services. “People of faith must unite to encourage the school district and its board members to continue their support of this time honored tradition.”

By the Jan. 15 meeting, hundreds of community members had signed a petition saying they supported school board prayer. And they came to the board meeting holding signs designed by the church that featured joined hands in front of the American flag and the hashtag “letusprayCVUSD.”

“I am grateful for people like our distinguished school board members for stirring my curiosity about Jesus Christ,” community member Anthony Vela said during the public comment period.

Michael Anderson is one of only two parents named in the lawsuit against the school board. The other parties, many of them students and parents, are listed as John or Jane Does to protect their identities.

“Historically, the backlash against plaintiffs that seek to uphold the separation of state and church is awful and oftentimes violent,” said Seidel, the Freedom From Religion Foundation lawyer.

Anderson says people who have publicly supported suing the school board have been “jeered and intimidated” by Calvary Chapel members at board meetings. He said scores of the church’s members waiting outside of the December meeting hissed at parents who supported the suit and yelled “this really sarcastic and mean-spirited ‘Merry Christmas.’ ”

“I’m fearful that the prayers are just the beginning,” Anderson said. “What if someone comes in and starts taking books from school because they don’t think something like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ should be allowed? … I am a Christian and was raised as a Presbyterian, but I don’t believe in the type of myopic ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ attitude.”

The fight in Chino Valley is in its infancy, but both sides say they won’t back down from what promises to be a colorful and passionate fight about prayer.

Even if the school board loses the court battle, Hibbs said he speaks for many in the community: “No law is going to stop people from praying.”

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