California Church Pulls Money It Promised School District in Prayer Fight

California Church Pulls Money It Promised School District in Prayer Fight June 17, 2019

The local megachurch that promised to pay Chino Valley Unified School District’s court fees in a battle over prayer at board meetings has decided to pull its funding now that the lawsuit is over.

Chino Valley school district’s prayer lawsuit may be over, but two school board members are upset that the appeal has ended and some community members are angry that a local church is not helping defray the costs of the legal battle as they feel was promised.

Let me start with some background. In the early 2010s, the Freedom From Religion Foundation warned the Chino Valley Unified School District that it needed to end its practice of including Christian prayers, Bible reading, and preaching (including proselytization by school board members) in its school board meetings. When the school board refused to change its practices, the FFRF sued.

Two of the five school board members—the two peppering meetings with proselytization and rants against LGBTQ rights—attended Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, a local megachurch. The connection between the school board and the church wasn’t just theoretical or accidental: when the two were running for school board, their pastor, Jack Hibbs, urged his congregation to vote for them.

When faced with the FFRF’s lawsuit, Hibbs urged the school board to stand firm and promised to cover the board’s legal expenses should they lose the fight. It sounds as though the church effectively took over the school board, using the school board as a tool in a theocratic battle for religious dominance.

As I noted recently, I have attended local school board meetings where I live, and they don’t open in prayer. Despite my evangelical background, the meetings not opening in prayer had seemed natural. It seemed so natural, in fact, that on a gut level I almost couldn’t understand why anyone would be upset by this—of course a meeting like this wouldn’t start with prayer!

There are likely two things going on here.

Many Americans believe that the United States is a Christian nation, and that Christianity should hold a privileged position in our society. Beginning a school board meeting in prayer is a way to say “this school district honors God and upholds Christian values and beliefs.” This view, of course, is both unconstitutional and discriminatory toward those who are not Christian.

But I think there’s something else going on here too, something that is tied to what one is used to. I am no longer religious. I can’t recall a single meeting I’ve attended in recent years that begins with prayer. Not starting a meeting in prayer is my default. But this is not true for people like my parents. My parents begin every meal with prayer, every Bible study and church meeting, every family gathering. Even their annual Fourth of July party begins with prayer. If everything you ever attend always begins in prayer, you might well notice the lack of prayer at a gathering like a school board meeting.

If you’re used to meetings starting with prayer, a meeting that doesn’t start with prayer might feel like something pointed even if it’s not.

This is not to defend this response. After all, a simple conversation about why school board meetings don’t (and can’t and shouldn’t) begin in prayer ought to be enough assuage people bothered by these meetings’ lack of prayer based. The fact that this is often not enough for so many people—this particular court battle is a case in point—indicates a theocratic belief that Christianity should occupy a privileged place. Still, it’s worth noting how often our reactions are based on what is normative to us.

With that out of the way, let’s return to Hibbs, the megachurch pastor. (This is not Hibbs’ first foray into school policy, by the way.)

The school board recently lost its court battle and decided not to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. Because they didn’t take the case as far as it would go—i.e. appealing it to the Supreme Court—Hibbs is refusing to cover the $200,000 in legal fees the school board is on the hook for.

Chino Valley school district public relations director Imee Perius said this week that the district would only have received the money if it moved the lawsuit as far as it could through the court system. She added that the  board had been advised by their legal counsel sometime after 2016 that the money being raised by Let Us Pray Foundation was to pursue the lawsuit as far as legally possible.

[Chino Hills resident Lisa] Greathouse told the board May 16 “Over and over we heard this lawsuit wasn’t going to cost the district a dime. We heard it from board members, church officials and we even heard it from Chino Hills council member Art Bennett. My question is where is this money that was promised?”

This is the problem with money that is offered with conditions. Hibbs effectively tried to pay the school board to do what he wanted—to become his own personal constitutional legal project—and when the school board decided not to do what he wanted (by ending the case early) he pulled his money.

And, as Greathouse outlines, school district residents now feel that they were misled—they were told that this effort wouldn’t cost the school district a dime, but that was not true.

All of this was so preventable. The board chose to wage a battle to preserve prayer and Bible reading at school board meetings rather than spending school board time on its actual mandate, education. 

What a waste of time, energy, and resources.

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