Nov 20, 2009

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging official prayers during public ceremonies at a Southern California community college.

The lawsuit challenges the South Orange County Community College District’s practice of opening its events with prayer. The District oversees two Southern California community colleges – Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and Irvine Valley College in Irvine; the legal action challenges prayers at Saddleback.

School officials, the legal action asserts, routinely sponsor official invocations at events for students and faculty, including scholarship-award ceremonies, commencement ceremonies and training programs for faculty. 

Plaintiffs assert they are subjected to unwanted religious worship at these events, a stance AU backs in its lawsuit. “These community colleges need to stop promoting religion and get back to the business of education,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Faculty and students should be able to attend school events without being subjected to official prayer and religious worship.”

AU’s lawsuit notes that students and faculty members have protested the mandatory prayers many times. The student government of Saddleback College has twice passed resolutions opposing the prayer practice, and similar resolutions have been passed by the faculty’s Academic Senate of Saddleback College, the Academic Senate of Irvine Valley College, the statewide Academic Senate for California Community Colleges and the South Orange County Community College District Faculty Association.

School officials ignored the complaints and, in response, actually increased the religious content of these public events.

In August of 2009, Saddleback officials showed a video titled “God Bless the USA” during a faculty training session. The video included religious images and closed with two pictures of military personnel carrying a flag-draped coffin. Superimposed on those images was the following text: “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you. Jesus Christ and the American G.I. One died for your soul, the other died for your freedom.”

The legal action asserts that these types of activities subject many in the audience to “unwanted religious practices.”

AU points out in legal documents that attendance at some of these events is mandatory. For example, students who are awarded scholarships must attend a public ceremony or forfeit the financial aid.

Plaintiffs are: Karla Westphal, Alannah Rosenberg, Margot Lovett and Claire Cesareo-Silvais, all professors at Saddleback College; Roy Bauer, a professor at Irvine Valley College; Ashley Mockett, a former student at Saddleback and two current Saddleback students who have chosen to remain anonymous.

AU’s complaint notes that for years, faculty, students and parents have protested the prayer policy. College officials, the complaint asserts, “responded by expanding the prayer practice, by making the prayers ever more religious and divisive, and by publicly attacking members of minority faiths and nonbelievers for not sharing the District’s preferred faith.”

The case, Westphal v. Wagner, was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee is overseeing the case, assisted by AU Madison Fellow Jef Klazen as well as Allen Erenbaum and Christopher P. Murphy of Mayer Brown LLP in Los Angeles.

“Prayer and religious worship are intimate matters that must be freely undertaken and never coerced,” Katskee said. “This litigation is designed to remind community college officials of that fact.”