Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) board member Cecilia “Ceci” Iglesias finds herself mired in controversy yet again. This time around, the Republican salvadoreña isn’t championing charter schools, calling gender-neutral bathrooms “creepy” in political attack videos, defending mariachi-loving Trump fans, or avoiding censure at last night’s board meeting. She’s in hot water for leading a SanTana school prayers campaign in the name of the good Lord above. “If we can’t have prayers in our Schools,” Iglesias wrote last month in a Pray for Santa Ana Schools Facebook group she belongs to, “Then we Will have Schools in our prayers.”
But did she blur the line between church and state by starting a prayer campaign at school sites? Iglesias obviously doesn’t think so, but The Freedom From Religion Foundation does, issuing a letter earlier this month to the school board member urging her to put an end to the amen. At the very least, Iglesias—who’s running for re-election to the board this year—began her public call to prayer not because of sodomites or Satanists, but after getting called out for a commencement speech flap at Segerstrom High School last month.
A bit of background: Segerstrom High is one of the newer high schools in SanTana, and in a wealthier part of town; because of that, outsiders think of it as a “good” school. “We didn’t have Segerstrom back there, so I went to Valley,” Iglesias stated about her upbringing during her June 14 commencement speech, Valley being an older school in a working-class neighborhood and therefore “bad.” Segerstrom students booed Valley, giving Iglesias pause for a chuckle. “I got reaction; that’s what I wanted to get!”
Valley High School teacher (and SanTana mayoral candidate) Benjamín Vazquez didn’t appreciate the dis. A petition to the board soon circulated demanding Iglesias be kept out of all Valley High events. It amassed an impressive 1,390 signatures before being delivered to the SAUSD board. Iglesias began a campaign of her own: Pray it all away!
“God has put in my heart to start a prayer campaign for our Schools and Teachers and Staff. We will start Monday at Valley,” Iglesias wrote in a now-deleted private Facebook post. “May God continue to bless you.” The call to prayer prompted a concerned resident to contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who delivered a letter to Iglesias on the following month on July 13. Titled “School board member involvement in religious event,” the letter took issue with Iglesias’ comments and their implications.
“Given the subject matter of this prayer campaign, we are concerned that observers will perceive it as an official school event,” wrote Madekube Ziegler, a legal fellow with the foundation. Ziegler cited case law that prohibits prayer at pregame rallies for high school football match ups, at high school graduation ceremonies, and even moments of silence during school hours. Remember those? The foundation even touted their recent victory in California halting Chino Valley Unified School District board members from uttering prayers in their official capacities.
“The prayer campaign gives the unconstitutional impression of District endorsement of religion over non-religion, but specifically endorsement of Christianity,” Ziegler continued. The foundation also cited non-legal reasons to cancel the campaign, calling prayer “unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive,” adding that all district employees should be alerted to the impropriety of Iglesias’ events.
Iglesias responded by lawyering up with California’s Pacific Justice Institute (PJI). The conservative legal organization bills itself as pro-bono defenders of religious freedom and parental rights. But the Southern Poverty Law Center lists PJI among the nation’s active anti-LGBT groups, and it further gained notoriety for publicizing an unfounded story years ago about a transgender teen sexual harassing girls in a Colorado school bathroom, at home with Iglesias’ own transphobic politics.
“The private citizens who pray for the schools in their community meet at 7:00 a.m.,” PJI lawyer Kevin Snider wrote in response Ziegler. “They do not enter the campus, staying on the outside of the fence.” In representing Iglesias, Snider pointed the Freedom From Religion Foundation to another unspecified social media post of hers. “Had a wonderful time with good friends at the prayer walk on the sidewalks surrounding Valley H.S. praying for the school and community,” Iglesias wrote. “Also I just want to remind everyone that all of these prayer walks are not District events and I am doing them solely in my capacity as a private citizen.”
The Pray For Santa Ana Schools Facebook page hasn’t listed a public prayer gathering event in awhile. (Pssst, don’t tell the warriors that prayer is actually safe and sound in school. How so? I know that if I didn’t study hard enough for a test, I clasped my hands in class begging for divine intervention!) When the prayer warriors originally did put out a flyer calling for others to join, they listed Iglesias, not as a private citizen, but as a Santa Ana school board member.
Iglesias didn’t return the Weekly’s request for comment, opting instead to ask someone else to respond. Stay tuned to see if this church and state spate turns into a lawsuit. The only prayer then, will be the complaint’s prayer for relief!