Religious Meets Litigious

California community college sued by students and faculty for opening official events with Christian prayer.
November 24, 2009

A group that advocates separation of church and state has filed a lawsuit against South Orange Community College District, in California, for opening many of its official events with Christian prayer.

The suit by Americans United for Separation of Church and State challenges prayer at Saddleback College, one of two institutions in the district. It states that, “for years, the trustees, the chancellor, and the president of Saddleback College have routinely held official prayer at numerous events for college students and faculty, including scholarship ceremonies, graduations, and the Chancellor’s Opening Sessions.” These public prayers, the suit further argues, “are insulting to [the] deeply held religious beliefs of some students"; it also states that these prayers make other students “feel like outsiders because they do not belong to the … preferred faith” of the community college.

Students, faculty and staff at Saddleback have “publicly objected to the District’s prayer practice” for a number of years, the suit states. Instead of changing this divisive policy, the suit alleges, Saddleback’s administration has responded “by making the prayers even more religious and divisive, and by publicly attacking members of minority faiths and non-believers for not sharing the District’s preferred faith" -- Christianity.

This lawsuit, for those offended by the prayers, is a last-ditch effort to have their concerns addressed. Five current faculty members, one alumna and two anonymous current students -- who asked to remain so for fear of retaliation from the college’s administration -- are named as plaintiffs in the suit.

Though the suit refers to a number of alleged actions by Saddleback’s administration that the plaintiffs consider egregious, it highlights one remark by Donald P. Wagner, president of the district’s Board of Trustees. Last year, a lawyer for the plaintiffs had sent letters to the district specifically asking that its officials “refrain from including prayers at future” college functions, asserting their “unconstitutionality.”

Weeks after receiving this note, the suit alleges, Wagner gave a religiously charged invocation -- of which a lengthy excerpt is included below -- to open Saddleback’s annual scholarship ceremony.

“Historically at events such as these we also take the opportunity to offer a moment of thanksgiving to God -- if He exists,” said Wagner, according to a transcript of his remarks included in the suit. “And I’m not here to say that He does. That would be wrong for an elected official, I am told. No matter that America’s founders invoked the name of God, and encouraged and participated in religious ceremonies in government facilities.

"No matter that the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens believe, or they have no objection to religious mention at public gatherings. No, no matter to the special interest group that has contacted this college to pursue its agenda of driving God from the public square. No matter to those too uncertain in the strength of their own views that they cannot abide any mention in public of the divine, and that would prefer instead to censor and silence free speech.

“If you don’t believe in God, that’s fine,” Wagner continued. “The government has no business trying to convince you otherwise. You’re welcome to sit down. We invited you to stand, but no one made you. But if you do believe, I would ask you, personally and not on behalf of the government, to take a moment to thank Him, for the many gifts you believe you have received from Him, including the opportunity to pursue an education in a country explicitly founded on the belief that we are endowed by our Creator with the gift of liberty. If you would, take that moment now, and then if you’re so inclined, say a simple ‘Amen.’ ”

Wagner and other district officials, including Tod A. Burnett, president of Saddleback, were not made available for comment by college officials.

Instead, all requests for comment were directed to David L. Llewellyn Jr., the institution’s lawyer -- who among other personal accolades proudly notes on his Web site that he was once featured on the cover of a California law magazine under the moniker "God’s Lawyer."

Llewellyn did not offer much comment about the suit, but defended the college's actions and had strong words for critics like Americans United.

“Invocations have been part of America since our founding,” he said. “We hope to defend that long-standing American tradition. … Still, I think there’s a general hostility toward religion that groups like Americans United have. They’re part of our general culture, and religions should be accepted for what they add to our culture and not viewed as dangerous.”

Llewellyn did make one concession about an incident specified in the suit.

At the Chancellor’s Opening Session, an event at the beginning of the academic year that gathers students and faculty, a slide show was displayed with the song “God Bless the USA.” The suit states that “the presentation concluded with two images of uniformed service members carrying a flag-draped coffin, with superimposed text reading: 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 showing of that video was a mistake,” Llewellyn said. “It was purely an accident. The district wasn’t aware that was in the video, and it was not intended to be an expression of anything other than patriotism.”

Americans United’s lawyers say they are preparing themselves for what they think could be a lengthy legal battle.

“It’s always better to settle matters and not have any unnecessary legal action, but I fear the district wants to make a statement here and drag out this case,” said Richard B. Katskee, assistant legal director at Americans United. “But, honestly, I don’t feel like there is anything radical about this case from our side. The courts have been consistent and clear: Government isn’t supposed to sponsor prayer. This isn’t like having ‘In God We Trust’ on the money, where it’s kind of sitting there. This is a state official doing so.… I suspect some folks will use this case as a rallying cry on their side. It’s always a popular thing to say that a case like ours is silencing Christians from talking about their religion. That’s just not what this is about.”

Karla Westphal, the lead plaintiff in this case, is a mathematics professor at Saddleback and a self-professed atheist. For her, this legal battle has been a long time coming, and has become increasingly personal through the years.

“I sent out an open letter to all administrators, faculty and staff a number of years ago expressing my concern about this,” she said. “I received personal notes both positive and negative. A lot of non-tenured faculty and staff even thanked me for speaking up when they could not. But no one has been ugly to my face yet. Still, I want to be clear, I would be suing even if I were a Christian. It’s not they they’re espousing a religious view I don’t believe in, it’s that they’re espousing one at all. Though, being an atheist, I’m sure, intensifies the emotional aspect of things."


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