The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California today announced a partial victory in Bacus vs Palo Verde Unified School District [EDCV 981 RT (VAPx)], a federal lawsuit filed January 6 on behalf of three teachers with the Palo Verde Unified School District in Blythe, California.
The teachers are seeking injunctive and declarative relief to stop the district from violating the Establishment Clause of the United States constitution, which forbids government agencies from endorsing any religion.
On January 9, the chair of the Margaret White School Site Council sent the ACLU of Southern California a letter stating that the site council had voluntarily agreed to "cease and desist from including an opening prayer at our site council meetings." The school board is expected to decide this week whether it will voluntarily stop including prayers at school board meetings.
If school officials refuse to discontinue these prayers voluntarily, the ACLU will ask the court to declare the use of sectarian prayers by PVUSD officials a violation of the First Amendment and to enjoin the school district and its officials from sponsoring, facilitating, or engaging in prayer at official meetings.
"By opening its meetings with sectarian prayers, Palo Verde School District officials are endorsing one religion over all others," said ACLU Slaff Fellow Peter Eliasberg. "This action violates our nation's most cherished freedoms."
Plaintiffs' complaint, filed January 6, asked the court to stop PVUSD officials from sponsoring explicitly sectarian prayers at official district meetings. The PVUSD Board of Education holds meetings at least once each month. These meetings give parents, students and other citizens the chance to express their views on school district policies.
The lawsuit was filed after repeated attempts by the teachers, who are not Christian, to stop the district from opening school board and other district meetings with Christian prayers. Despite plaintiffs' requests, PVUSD officials continued to open meetings with prayers ending with the words, "in Jesus name we pray,"
In addition to the regular school board meetings, Christian prayers had also been included at the site council meetings. These site councils, required under the California Education Code, develop school plans for issues such as curriculum, staff development, and use of certain state education funds. The January 9 letter indicates this practice will cease.
Said ACLU attorney Dan Tokaji, "We are pleased that some of the defendants in this lawsuit have acted so promptly to cease this blatant endorsement of religion. We hope that all other defendants will follow their lead and agree to abide by the constitution of the United States of America. If they do not, we will seek a court order upholding the principle that church and state must be kept separate." If defendants do not voluntarily agree to cease prayers at school board meetings, plaintiffs expect to schedule a preliminary injunction hearing for February 23 before Judge Robert Timlin at the U.S. District Court in Riverside.