The San Diego Unified School District and one of its school principals targeted the Catholic faith and St. Junípero Serra with an illegal, defamatory campaign to effect removal of St. Serra’s name from a high school in the city’s Tierrasanta neighborhood, the Thomas More Society alleges in a 49-page lawsuit filed Wednesday in Superior Court of the State of California.
The lawsuit alleges the March 9 vote by the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education violated California state law and illegally subjected the Catholic faith to a “lynch mob of erasure and anti-Catholic bigotry.” The board vote was based on disinformation about the popularity of renaming the school and influenced by a “slanderous primer” written by a high school student who supported the name change, the suit contends.
The Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based religious-liberty law firm, warned the school district in an August 2020 letter that the campaign to erase Junípero Serra from the building name showed “unconstitutional hostility toward religion.” In a July 12, 2021 letter to the school board, Thomas More Society special counsel Paul M. Jonna said if the body did not reverse the renaming decision at its July 13 meeting, a lawsuit would follow.
“This is another example of the ‘cancel culture’ mentality that radical leftist people in education are trying to force on an unwilling American public,” said Charles S. LiMandri, another special counsel for the Thomas More Society. “Father Serra was a great defender of the indigenous people of California, and he deserves our best efforts to defend his legacy.”
Catholic World Report sought comment from San Diego Unified School District on the lawsuit, but did not receive a reply on Wednesday.
Junípero Serra High School in Tierrasanta opened in 1976. The March 2021 vote changed the school name to Canyon Hills High School / Mat Kwatup KunKun. The mascot was changed from a conquistador to a rattlesnake. The suit alleges that Serra High School Principal Erica Renfree led the renaming campaign and provided bigoted, slanted information to the school board.
Originally, two Junípero Serra High School students started a petition to remove the conquistador as the school mascot because they thought it improperly celebrated Spanish colonialism. Renfree suggested the students expand the campaign to include renaming the school, the suit alleges. “In effect, Dr. Renfree sought to enlist her students to join a lynch mob of erasure and anti-Catholic bigotry,” the suit said.
“Renfree’s actions have pandered to a false and historically inaccurate narrative and have demonstrated an unconstitutional animus towards this Catholic saint,” Jonna said. “The Board of Education’s ‘vote’ on this name change was rigged – and based on false and misleading statements as well as manipulated data. The government officials conveniently changed the renaming rules in the middle of the pandemic, in order to effectuate their agenda, and left the entire community of Tierrasanta out of the process. The conduct at issue here violates both the Due Process and Establishment Clauses of the California and U.S. Constitutions.”
Junípero Serra (1713-1784) was a Franciscan missionary who came to North America from the Island of Majorca, off the eastern coast of Spain. For nine years he worked among the Pame Indians in a region north of Querétaro, Mexico, and translated the Catholic catechism into the Pame language. Later, Father Serra went to California and established nine mission communities along Spanish trade routes from San Diego to San Francisco. Historians regard Serra as the greatest California missionary, who had great love for the native peoples of California.
“Serra repeatedly intervened for mercy of behalf of indigenous rebels against Spanish authorities,” said Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone, archbishop of San Francisco, in Washington Post op-ed. “He famously walked to Mexico City with a painful, ulcerated leg to obtain the authority to discipline the military who were abusing the indigenous people. Then he walked back.”
St. Junípero Serra has long been honored as the “Apostle of California.” The 15-volume Catholic Encyclopedia says this of Serra: “The esteem in which his memory is held by all classes in California may be gathered from the fact that Mrs. Stanford, not a Catholic, had a granite monument erected to him at Monterey. A bronze statue of heroic size represents him as the apostolic preacher in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. In 1884, the Legislature of California passed a concurrent resolution making 29 August of that year, the centennial of Father Serra’s burial, a legal holiday.”
A packet of information circulated to the San Diego school board in connection with the March vote cites no specific information or sources for the claim Fr. Serra was an oppressor of native people. It claimed the mission communities Serra founded were “inhumane and cruel to the indigenous population” and therefore, “Serra is a symbol of that suffering.”
“Serra is also a symbol of European empire and colonization, the negative effects of which are still felt worldwide,” one PowerPoint slide reads. “It doesn’t matter what his intentions were, it’s the practice and outcome that matter. Both are atrocious.”
Prior to January 2021, school building and facility names were considered permanent under a rule in force since 1964, the suit says. A change enacted on Jan. 26 allowed renaming committees, subject to community participation. The lawsuit alleges the school district violated California’s Ralph M. Brown Act by failing to give proper notice and accurately state its intention to vote to change the school name on March 9. The school board “published an inadequate and misleading agenda item for its March 9, 2021 meeting that gave no indication the board was going to make a final decision to rename Junípero Serra High School in a single vote at the meeting, but rather indicated the board would only issue a recommendation to the school to change its name,” the suit states.
A 70-page packet circulated prior to the meeting was misleading and incomplete, the lawsuit says, because it omitted “a number of key polls that demonstrated that the majority of respondents preferred to keep Serra’s name in the school name in some form. The packet also completely failed to include statistical data reporting how Junípero Serra High School students actually voted regarding which name they wished for the school to have.”
Janet Bartel, a 40-year Tierrasanta resident and parent of two former Junípero Serra High students, told the school board at its July 13 meeting that community residents were not informed of the planned renaming vote. “Incredibly in March, we residents were gobsmacked by the news that Serra High was now Canyon Hills,” Bartel said. After watching a video replay of the board meeting, Bartel said it was a “one-sided, slanted meeting” and lamented, “We were not included as residents.” Bartel is one of the plaintiffs in the Thomas More Society lawsuit.
Angela Elfman, a 38-year Tierrasanta resident and parent of two Serra High School alumni, told the school board the community was not aware of the planned name change. “The renaming of Serra High School is a total shock to our family, when we found out this last May that the name change had taken place,” Elfman said. “We could not understand how we missed the opportunity to vote. We never saw a Tierra Times article or notice. We saw no notice of town halls or anything from the town council. Nothing. No notices on the Serra marquee.”
The packet circulated to the board in March was astounding for “the number of misleading statements and data inconsistencies,” she said. One section claimed the vast majority of one poll’s respondents supported a name change, Elfman said, when in reality 65 percent supported leaving the name alone or shortening it to “Serra High School.”
The school district was warned by Thomas More Society attorneys in a 10-page letter in August 2020 that the name-change campaign would expose the district to significant legal liability. “Removing his name and images of him is the same as tearing down crosses or statues of Jesus, Mary and other Catholic saints—all are symbols of Catholic identity and reverence,” the letter said. Courts are loathe to wade into controversies over religious doctrine and practice, the letter said.
“And under the ‘heckler’s veto’ doctrine, the courts will certainly look to the anti-Catholic motivations and statements of Junípero Serra High School and its principal,” the letter stated, “which inappropriately influenced students and parents with anti-Catholic rhetoric and misrepresentations about Catholicism and Saint Junípero Serra.”
The naming controversy is the latest chapter in ongoing attacks on the legacy of St. Junípero Serra. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter riots in the summer of 2020, a statue of Fr. Serra in Sacramento’s Capitol Park was torn down. In August 2020, protesters demanded a Serra statue at Mission Santa Inés in Solvang, Calif., be removed. The local newspaper described the statue as “controversial” because Serra “is accused of mistreating Native Americans in his care.”
Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has decried the “Cancel Padre Serra” movement. “This entire effort to erase the memory of Serra is from a historical standpoint ridiculous and from a moral standpoint more than a little frightening,” Bishop Barron wrote in July 2020. “…To state it bluntly, Junípero Serra is being used as a convenient scapegoat and whipping boy for certain abuses inherent to eighteenth century Spanish colonialism. Were such abuses real? Of course. But was Fr. Serra personally responsible for them? Of course not.”
The Thomas More Society lawsuit is Charles Cox et al v. Dr. Erica Renfree et al.
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