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ACLU warns of possible legal action if HUSD opens meetings with prayer

School board to consider issue at Monday meeting

STAFF WRITER

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California is warning the Hesperia Unified School District that a proposal to open meetings with a prayer opens the district to “a strong likelihood of being sued.”

At Monday’s meeting, the board is scheduled to vote on a policy outlining how invocations should be conducted. But the district is acting on bad advice, according to the ACLU, and is opening itself up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential legal fees if it goes forward.

In May 2009, board member Anthony Riley argued in favor of adding an invocation to meetings.

“I have never been in an area where there are more churches per square mile than in the Victor Valley area,” Riley said Thursday. “This was just an extension of, really, representing the community as a whole and the values that we all share.”

An opinion by the conservative Christian non-profit Alliance Defend Fund said it was permissible: “There is simply no question that a legislative body may open its sessions with an invocation,” the ADF said, in part, in a July 20 letter.

Much of their argument hinges on a 1983 Supreme Court case, Marsh v. Chambers, in which the court upheld that government funding for chaplains was constitutional because of the “unique history” of the United States.

“The United States Supreme Court has acknowledged that the official proclamations of thanksgiving and prayer,” the ADF’s letter reads in part, “and invocations before the start of government meetings, are an essential part of our culture and in no way a violation of the Constitution.”

But in a letter sent Wednesday, the ACLU countered with a more recent federal Circuit Court of Appeals case, 1999’s Coles v. Cleveland School Board, which stated that school boards are an exception: “the school board, unlike other public bodies, is an integral part of the public school system,” and the issue instead is one of prayer being prohibited in school.

The HUSD’s proposed policy, based on one suggested by the ADF -- the invocation will not appear on the agenda, no member of the board or employee of the district will be required to participate and the invocation shall be offered by a rotating member of the Victor Valley’s clergy -- will place the district in legal jeopardy, according to the lawyer who wrote the ACLU’s letter.

“I think they are at tremendous risk to be held, not like a city council or a state legislature, and unable to hold an invocation during their meetings at all,” said Los Angeles-based attorney Peter Eliasberg. “School boards are essentially parts of school.”

Although the ADF “offers to defend the public body and its policy free of charge,” Eliasberg’s letter points out that ADF did not offer to pay attorneys fees. In 2003, when the Palo Verde Unified School District lost a case regarding its invocation policy, it was ordered to pay Eliasberg $180,000 in legal fees.

“The board faces a strong likelihood of being sued, having a court enjoin the board from opening its meetings with prayer, and having to pay the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees,” Eliasberg’s letter concludes.

So it’s up to the HUSD and the school board.

“I have contacted our legal counsel and want to be very cautious on what the next steps are that we take,” Superintendent Mark McKinney said in a written statement Thursday.

Riley is open to “putting this on the back burner,” given everything else that the school district has on its plate for 2010, including a budget deficit and the possibility of more layoffs.

“At the end of the day, we just have to leave it in God’s hand, don’t we?” said Riley. “If it doesn’t come to fruition, it isn’t because we didn’t try.”

The next regular meeting of the HUSD school board will be held on Jan. 11 at 6 p.m. in the HUSD Educational Support Center Annex, 15576 Main Street.

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 760-956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com. Follow us on Twitter at Twitter.com/HesperiaStar.


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