By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
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Photo by Jack GouldLate last fall, on a Friday morn, a group of Santa Ana middle-school principals met at Denny's for breakfast. They had planned to discuss curriculum matters, but instead they ran into the Bible-thumping Grand Illuminati that has infiltrated the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD).
At the back of the restaurant sat district Superintendent Al Mijares and school board member Rosemarie Avila. Surrounding them were SAUSD administrators, high-school principals and other district personnel—about a half-dozen or so. Each listened intently as Mijares lectured from a book.
"The principals figured Mijares and the others were there to join them," said one individual familiar with the incident. But when one school official approached the table, he realized Mijares was leading a Bible-study group—off campus, but during school hours.
The officials had accidentally discovered what many in Orange County's largest school district have whispered about for years but no one could ever quite confirm: the prayer circle that lords over Santa Ana schools. Those rumors held that Mijares and Avila held Bible readings during school hours once a week at the Denny's on the corner of 17th Street and Tustin Avenue in Santa Ana. Members of this Jesus-friendly breakfast club supposedly received promotions, protection and weighed in on school policy; those who opposed it faced persecution. The Christians, it was alleged, were feeding the Romans to the lions.
Now a group of teachers has filed personal claims against the district that allege SAUSD fired three counselors at Valley High as part of a "common plan and scheme of certain district administrators and school officials who participated in a faith-based association to promote the interest of others who participated in this faith-based association." A preliminary hearing on the matter is set for Aug. 6 in Orange County Superior Court.
The legal complaint does not make clear how the Mijares/Avila Bible Club "promotes the interest" of its members. And no one on either side is talking—neither plaintiff lawyer Stanton T. Mathews, the plaintiffs themselves nor the district.
But alleging a Christian conspiracy exists at SAUSD is like jumping into the ocean and declaring it filled with water. Fundamentalist views have long enjoyed a champion in Santa Ana schools, thanks to Avila. For the past 12 years, she has pushed such religious-Right obsessions as abstinence-only sex education and school prayer. During the July 26 SAUSD trustee meeting, Avila again attempted to flex her evangelical muscle by asking the board to deny extending civil-rights protections to transsexuals. Her colleagues rejected that by a 4-1 margin.
None of Avila's conservative proposals—at that same meeting, she also asked the district to eliminate preschool funding—ever pass. But some Santa Ana activists fear she'll usher in a well-organized conservative-Christian slate in this fall's school-board election to oust incumbents Rob Richardson and Sal Tinajero.
These activists point to the increasing prominence of Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa in SAUSD affairs. The thousands-strong, born-again church, located on the Santa Ana side of the Costa Mesa border, is the home parish for Avila, Mijares and dozens of SAUSD employees. Some congregants, supported by Avila, held a rally outside district offices in favor of abstinence-only sex education when the matter came to a vote last summer. In March, someone in the district tipped off Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith that the board planned to extend domestic-partner benefits to district employees. Smith, in turn, publicly urged his parishioners to attend a March 23 trustee meeting and engage in fag-bashing. More than 300 people did just that, with many openly saluting their "fellow Christians" Avila and Mijares [see "Notes From the Banana Republic: A Night at the Queer-Bashing," April 2].
Tom Harrison, president of Santa Ana's teachers union, declined to comment on the Bible-study claims since "the plaintiffs are our members." But a teacher who requested anonymity told the Weekly that many teachers have filed previous complaints with the union to no avail.
"You can be religious—that's not a problem," said the teacher. "But these meetings happen during school time. Why are participants allowed to miss work? If you want a promotion, do you have to belong? If you don't like them, then what?"
No one interviewed for this story has seen Mijares or Avila eating—or speaking in tongues—at Denny's since they discovered the Bible breakfast club last November. This reporter, however, caught the two in the act this April. And last Friday, the club was still going strong. Mijares and Avila weren't present this time, but three SAUSD employees were there, sitting in a back table, drinking coffee and talking softly.
Two clutched gold-leafed Bibles. I didn't recognize anyone in the group, but their polo shirts bore the seals of Santa Ana schools. When I asked my waitress if the Bible-study group met every week, she rolled her eyes. "I have a lot of Bible-study groups in every week," she said. "Those people over there meet about once a month. I think they're with a school or something."