Westphal v. Wagner

Last modified 2011.09.15

  • Status Closed
  • Type Counsel
  • Court U.S. District Court
  • Issues Discrimination in Name of Religion, Government-Supported Religion, Official Prayer, Schools and Learning, Teaching Religion in Public Schools, The Rights of Religious Minorities

The South Orange County Community College District operates two community colleges in Orange County, California — Saddleback College and Irvine Valley College.  Members of the District’s Board of Trustees delivered prayers at scholarship-award ceremonies (which are mandatory for students receiving scholarships), graduations, training programs for faculty, building dedications, and other significant events.  In response to complaints, trustees embellished the prayers with attacks on religious minorities and nonbelievers:  At Saddleback’s 2008 scholarship ceremony, for example, the Board president justified the prayers by declaring that “the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens believe [in God],” and dismissed those who are uncomfortable with the official prayers as “too uncertain in the strength of their own views . . . [to] abide any mention in public of the divine.”  And at a 2009 faculty-training program, the District presented a slideshow entitled “God Bless the USA,” which preached that “Jesus Christ . . . died for your soul.”

In November 2009, Americans United challenged the presentations on behalf of five faculty members, two students, and one former student.

The district court issued an order in January 2011, holding that: (1) the 2008 scholarship-ceremony invocation and the “God Bless the USA” presentation violated the Establishment Clause; (2) our plaintiffs were entitled to relief for those violations; (3) our plaintiffs also were entitled to an injunction directing the defendants to comply with the Board’s December 7, 2009 Prayer Policy, which requires District officials to pre-screen audiovisual presentations for “inappropriate religious or other content” and forbids “presenting personal comments with sectarian religious content at District or college events”; and (4) generic, non-sectarian prayers could continue to be presented at District and college events.

In April 2011, the parties notified the court that they had entered into a settlement agreement. As part of that agreement, the District agreed to discontinue official prayers before scholarship ceremonies and faculty training programs. For all other college events, including graduation, a planning committee at each college will decide, year-by-year, whether to include a non-sectarian prayer or a moment of silence.

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