A California megachurch took over Chino Valley public schools, creating chaos (again)
Conservative Christians have spent years trying to ruin this school district. Now they're in charge.
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What happens when conservative Christians from the same megachurch take over a public school board? The answer is obvious: They do whatever they can to inject their faith into the system even if that means destroying the things that make the district great.
In the case of one particular school district in California, the problems have been festering for well over a decade.
Just consider these paragraphs:
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.
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 [recent] board election received 11,341 votes.
That article is from 2015, when reporter Amy Julia Harris of Reveal wrote about the overlap between the megachurch run by Pastor Jack Hibbs and the members of the Chino Valley Unified School District board.
Harris wrote about how three of the five board members—Andrew Cruz, James Na, and Sylvia Orozco—were all members of the megachurch and they were using their power to turn meetings into church services, full of explicitly Christian prayers and Bible verses and rants against gay marriage. They eventually lost a lawsuit over the prayers filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, but only after multiple rounds of appeals. That charade cost the district over $282,000.
In addition to the prayer lawsuit, Cruz had been criticized in 2015 for going on an absurd rant trashing gay marriage, invoking the Confederate Flag, arguing that racism was over, and complaining about California’s mandatory vaccination laws.
Harris also wrote about the megachurch’s involvement in the school board races. For example, Hibbs endorsed Na when he ran for re-election…
… and 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,” even though those questions were irrelevant when it came to a school board race. Their responses, however, were distributed among the congregation.
The church’s social media also praised Na when he introduced a program to bring the Bible into public schools.
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.
Na was also accused of using his position to try and recruit a student in the district to attend Hibbs’ church.
What about the argument that the church’s involvement in these races violated IRS guidelines saying pastors couldn’t endorse candidates from the pulpit? Well, Pastor Jack Hibbs had something to say about that:
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.
(He’s not telling the truth there. His church has literally given money to political candidates.)
The end result was that, while the church-endorsed candidates didn’t always win, they won enough times to make a difference. In the case of Chino Valley, Harris wrote, the church-backed majority “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.”
The point is: The megachurch’s involvement in this particular school district has been a problem for well over a decade.
That’s why an article published Monday in the Daily Beast made me do a double take. It wasn’t plagiarism. But it was still the same damn story written for 2023, involving many of the same characters doing all the same things. Hibbs and the board members never faced any consequences for their actions, so they just kept going.
As reporters Kate Briquelet and Decca Muldowney explain, Sylvia Orozco is no longer on the Chino Valley school board, but a woman named Sonja Shaw captured a seat last November—by a mere 317 votes—to give Calvary Chapel members a majority once again (alongside Andrew Cruz and James Na). Shaw is now the board president, and she and her allies are pushing more conservative policies than ever before.
… Shaw is in the national spotlight in wake of her Chino school board passing codes that ban pride flags in classrooms and force educators to inform parents if their children identify as transgender—the first such policy to be passed in the state.
This summer, Shaw’s school board meetings, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles, became chaotic spectacles, ones that attracted the Proud Boys and other right-wing extremists and pitted them against students and parents protesting what they’re calling anti-LGBTQ practices that endanger children. When California superintendent of schools Tony Thurmond appeared at the July meeting in opposition, Shaw unceremoniously silenced him.
Hibbs is, of course, a central character in this story because he pushed for those members to get elected to the board. But neither he nor Shaw wants to own up to that.
… Shaw claims that neither she nor the school board follow Hibbs’ orders. “Absolutely not. No one has a direct line to Pastor Jack Hibbs. Pastor Jack has never said, ‘Hey, guys, I want you to bring this policy forward.’ Never ever did he do any of that,” she told The Daily Beast. She added, however, that she couldn’t speak on Hibbs’ involvement with the board of education prior to her election.
Last September, Shaw told the San Bernardino Sun that she wasn’t running for election on the behalf of the 10,000-member Calvary Chapel. “They keep calling me ‘the church’s choice.’ I’ve never met Pastor Jack (Hibbs). I’ve never been brought up on stage,” she said.
One month later, however, Hibbs introduced her at the pulpit, telling his Sunday service that “she’s truly going up against the machine” before leading a prayer for her victory. Shaw bowed her head as Hibbs lifted a hand in the air and declared, “She has decided, Lord, to take on the woke-ism that is attacking our children.”
She’s not necessarily lying. Hibbs doesn’t need to tell her what to do. He just preaches right-wing propaganda, knowing full well that the school board members in the pews will take the hint and pass policies in accordance with his religious views, regardless of what students or other community members want.
This current board (which includes one other conservative member), led by Shaw, has cozied up to right-wing extremists groups like Gays Against Groomers and passed a resolution supporting a bill that would “out” trans kids to their parents if they identified as a gender that wasn’t declared on their birth certificates. When one high school counselor proposed building a private office in its wellness center for mental health breaks, Shaw declared such a space could become a Planed Parenthood clinic, a move that dissuaded one group from fundraising for the project and led to a harassment campaign against school staffers.
This is what happens when Christians who don’t give a damn about LGBTQ students, educational expertise, or the mental health of young people take over a public school district. It’s chaos for everyone who doesn’t believe one conservative evangelical megachurch’s cruel and thoughtless beliefs should guide school board policies.
The only way this changes is if enough community members rally together and vote for a slate of sensible candidates who can override Jack Hibbs’ wishes.
The next elections are in November of 2024. Three seats will be up for grabs.
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