California settles lawsuit with parents, removes Aztec chants, prayers from Ethnic Studies curriculum

(Bethany Blankley | The Center Square) – The California Board of Education and Department of Education (CDE) settled a lawsuit with parents over a controversial ethnic studies program that included…

(Bethany Blankley | The Center Square) – The California Board of Education and Department of Education (CDE) settled a lawsuit with parents over a controversial ethnic studies program that included the recital of prayers and chants to Aztec gods.

The CDE and Board of Education agreed to remove instructions related to two religious chants and prayers from its controversial Ethnic Studies Program. As part of the settlement agreement, the department and board will also issue a public notice to all California school districts, charter schools and county offices of education instructing them not to teach the prayers and chants.

The Californians for Equal Rights Foundation and three San Diego parents sued last September over the new curriculum that included teaching California’s 1.7 million high school students to recite prayers and chants to Aztec gods often used historically during ceremonies involving human sacrifice.

The plaintiffs, represented by the Thomas More Society, alleged the State Board of Education violated the California Constitution’s free-exercise and establishment clauses and state law banning government aid to religion by approving a curriculum that instructs students to pray to pagan gods.

After four years of work on the curriculum and two years of debate and over 82,000 public comments, last March, the board adopted the Ethnic Studies curriculum largely rooted in critical race theory. It includes a section called, “Affirmation, Chants, and Energizers.” It also includes an Aztec prayer component called “In Lak Ech Affirmation,” which repeatedly invokes, makes intercessory requests and gives thanks to five Aztec deities by name.

“The Aztec prayers at issue – which seek blessings from and the intercession of these demonic forces – were not being taught as poetry or history,” Paul Jonna, partner at LiMandri & Jonna LLP and Thomas More Society Special Counsel, said in a statement. “Rather, the ESMC instructed students to chant the prayers for emotional nourishment after a ‘lesson that may be emotionally taxing or even when student engagement may appear to be low.’ The idea was to use them as prayers.”

The board maintains the curriculum isn’t mandatory and is only intended to provide local school districts with “the background, ideas, and examples to begin local discussions on expanding ethnic studies offerings.”

Board President Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond said that passing the Ethnic Studies model curriculum was “an important step toward confronting and ultimately transforming racism in our society and in our state.” The vote had “been a long time in coming,” she added, saying the board was “reminded daily that the racial injustice it reveals is not only a legacy of the past but a clear and present danger.”

The board also said the curriculum “gives schools the opportunity to uplift the histories and voices of marginalized communities in ways that help our state and nation achieve racial justice and create lasting change.”

But the Aztecs, who lived in Mexico, never directly contributed to America’s founding. They were conquered by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1521.

One of the parents and co-plaintiffs, Jose Velazquez, said he was relieved at least this part of the curriculum was being taken out. It took “a multi-racial coalition of individuals with different backgrounds and beliefs to move a mountain to challenge the state education apparatus,” he said.

“Both the ‘In Lak Ech’ and the ‘Ashe’ affirmations repetitively invoke religious gods or deities, which should be deleted from any public education curricula because our education system is not above the law,” Valazquez added. “It is up to courageous parents, citizens and organizations to stand up for what’s right.”

The state agreed to remove the prayers in question “while continuing to dispute any and all liability,” Jonna added.

The CDE and Board of Education have not issued a statement on the settlement.

“We are encouraged by this important, hard-fought victory. Our state has simply gone too far in attempts to promote fringe ideologies and racial grievance policies, even those that disregard established constitutional principles. Endorsing religious chants in the state curriculum is one glaring example,” CFER president Frank Xu said. “To improve California public education, we need more people to stand up against preferential treatment programs and racial spoils. At both the state and local levels, we must work together to re-focus on true education.”