California District Sued Over Dropping Catholic Saint’s Name From School

By Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and a recognized expert in left-wing activism.
July 15, 2021 Updated: July 15, 2021

The San Diego Unified School District is being sued by parents who say cancel culture is to blame for dropping the name of a Roman Catholic saint who figured prominently in California’s history from a high school’s name.

The school at issue is Junipero Serra High School. Officials recently voted to rename the school, which was founded in 1976, as Canyon Hills High.

The lawsuit, known as Cox v. Renfree, was initiated July 14 at a San Diego office of the Superior Court of California by the Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm specializing in religious freedom issues.

The school’s alumni families and residents of the surrounding community, which is known as Tierrasanta, who call themselves “Preserve Serra High,” object to what they characterize as the school district’s unlawful action in renaming the publicly funded high school without allowing input from local resident taxpayers.

St. Junipero Serra was canonized in 2015. The Spanish Franciscan priest, whose missionary work among the indigenous peoples earned him the title Apostle of California, died in Carmel, California, in 1784. He performed missionary work in Mexico and then in California when it was a Spanish possession. From 1769 to 1782, Serra founded nine missions in what was later to become the U.S. state of California.

Critics say that these missions helped strengthen Spanish colonial rule, which they argue led to the exploitation and mistreatment of Native Indians, and this they say makes Serra a villain by implication, or a scapegoat in the eyes of his supporters. Last year, rioters pulled down and defaced statues of Serra in California in the wave of leftist-organized violence that followed the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

“This is another example of the ‘cancel culture’ mentality that radical leftist people in education are trying to force on an unwilling American public,” attorney Charles LiMandri, partner at LiMandri & Jonna and Thomas More Society Special Counsel, said in a statement.

“Father Serra was a great defender of the indigenous people of California, and he deserves our best efforts to defend his legacy.”

Epoch Times Photo
Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif., on April 11, 2017. (Worldbruce via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Junipero Serra High School Principal Erica Renfree, the school district, and about 70 other individuals are accused in the lawsuit of violating the state and U.S. constitutions. Renfree asked student activists to “not only remove the Conquistador as their mascot, but also erase Serra’s name and memory from the school premises,” according to the law firm.

Renfree said she was motivated, as reported in the lawsuit, by her observation that, “Junipero Serra statues are being torn down all across the state.”

“Renfree’s actions have pandered to a false and historically inaccurate narrative and have demonstrated an unconstitutional animus towards this Catholic saint,” Paul Jonna, who is also a partner at LiMandri & Jonna and Thomas More Society special counsel, said in a statement.

“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,” Jonna said.

The lawsuit alleged that, “in effect, Dr. Renfree sought to enlist her students to join a lynch mob of erasure and anti-Catholic bigotry” and detailed how Renfree implored readers of her blog to “educate themselves” by reading a misleading historical primer, penned by a high school student.

In an interview with The Epoch Times, Jonna said in early 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, officials “just completely changed the process for naming schools.” As part of this new process, the school district held a vote on the name change during a virtual hearing held via Zoom, and “no one in the community knew this vote was going to take place.”

During the process, “there was clear animus towards the Christian faith,” Jonna said.

Serra, he said, is considered a founding father of California, and it’s clear “if you look at the overwhelming weight of the historical record, he protected the indigenous people from slavery and exploitation.”

Serra “saw them as children of God,” and records show that “he repeatedly pressed the authorities for better treatment of the native people and he cared for their immortal souls.”

“He baptized thousands of them, washed their feet, and learned their native languages. So he was a great defender of the indigenous peoples.”

San Diego Unified School District officials didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and a recognized expert in left-wing activism.