CHINO HILLS, Calif. – A federal judge is ordering the Chino Valley Unified school board to pay the legal fees of the Freedom of Religion Foundation, which sued the district over prayers at board meetings.
U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal ordered four board members to pay the legal expenses for the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation stemming from the atheist group’s lawsuit challenging prayer at board meetings, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reports.
Brenal in February ordered the board to cease “reciting prayers, Bible readings and proselytizing at board meetings” and the school board is in the middle of appealing that ruling.
“Brenal ordered board president Andrew Cruz and board members James Na, Sylvio Orzco and Irene Hernandez-Blair Thursday to pay a total of $202,971.70 to the Freedom For Religion Foundation for their attorney’s fees and other costs,” according to the news site.
FFRF complained in a lawsuit filed in 2014 that school board members opened and closed meetings with prayer or Bible references, and that some school board members would discuss faith during meetings. FFRF complained that students who were required to attend board meetings for discipline or other reasons are forced to endure the prayers.
The Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece V. Galloway that local officials can opening meetings with prayer, as long as the government agency doesn’t discriminate against minority faiths when choosing who offers the prayer and that nonbelievers are not coerced to participate, the Daily Bulletin reports.
“In their November 2014 suit against the district, lawyers for the Freedom From Religion Foundation argued that Na ‘often injects religion into his comments’ at the ends of meetings and Cruz regularly closed meetings with a Bible reading, in addition to the prayers used to open meetings,” according to the news site.
“The four members of the school board that Bernal enjoined from ‘conducting, permitting or otherwise endorsing school-sponsored prayer in board meetings’ weren’t just opening the meeting with a prayer — something that government agencies around San Bernardino County do — but often repeatedly stopped meetings to make long expressions of their faith, according to regular meeting attendees.”
Early last month, the board voted to hire attorneys from the Pacific Justice Institute, a religious freedom legal nonprofit, to appeal Brenal’s ruling.
The total cost for FFRF attorney’s fees imposed on board members is based on hourly rates for individual attorneys and legal staff who worked to sue the district, according to the court order.
Those people include David Kaloyanides, who billed 202.4 hours at $650 an hour, for a total of $131,560. Andrew Seidel billed 74.8 hours at $500 an hour for a total of $37,400. Rebecca Markert billed 13.5 hours and Roda Torres billed 130.2 hours for totals of $7,425 and $26,040, respectively.
School board members attempted to dispute the hourly rates and “block billing” method used to calculate the legal fees, but Brenal dismissed their concerns, though he did reduce the billable hours for some things.