[UPDATED] Federal Lawsuit Targets Orange County College District Prayers

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UPDATED WITH RESPONSE FROM LAWYER FOR THE DISTRICT . . .

A lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against the South Orange County Community College District over official prayers during public ceremonies, Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced today.

The district's campuses are Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and Irvine Valley College in Irvine, but Westphal v. Wagner (which references Karla Westphal, a Saddleback professor who is one of the plaintiffs, and Don Wagner, the president of the SOCCCD boad) specifically targets prayers at Saddleback, where school officials are accused of routinely sponsoring official invocations at events for students and faculty, including scholarship-award ceremonies, commencement ceremonies and training programs for faculty.

"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 Washington, D.C.-based Americans United, in a press statement. "Faculty and students should be able to attend school events without being subjected to official prayer and religious worship."

Lynn group contends that students and faculty members have protested the mandatory prayers many times, with Saddleback's student government having twice passed resolutions opposing the prayer practice. The district's faculty association and the state, Saddleback and Irvine Valley academic senates have all separately opposed the practice. And yet, the suit contends, school officials have not only ignored complaints but "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."

District Chancellor Raghu Mathur, who is also named as a defendant in the suit, has retained David Llewellyn of the Sacramento-based Llewellyn Spann law firm. Llewellyn, who often represents conservative Christian groups, left a message with the Weekly vowing that Westphal v. Wagner will be settled through "constitutional law designated in the courts."

"The tradition of opening public events with an invocation goes back to the founding of the country," he said. "The district would like to continue with that tradition."

But the Americans United complaint references more than just invocations before public meetings. Saddleback officials are accused of showing a video titled God Bless the USA during a faculty training session this past August.

"The video included religious images and closed with two pictures of military personnel carrying a flag-draped coffin," according to the complaint. "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.'"

Such spectacles subject some members of audiences to "unwanted religious practices," according to Americans United, which adds that attendance at some events where this occurs are mandatory, citing students who are awarded scholarships but must go to a public ceremony or forfeit the financial aid.

"Prayer and religious worship are intimate matters that must be freely undertaken and never coerced," said Richard B. Katskee, the Americans United assistant legal director overseeing the case. "This litigation is designed to remind community college officials of that fact."

Besides Westphal, other plaintiffs named in the lawsuit are: Saddleback professors Alannah Rosenberg, Margot Lovett and Claire Cesareo-Silvais, Irvine Valley professor Roy Bauer (whose DissentTheBlog has been all over this, naturally), former Saddleback student Ashley Mockett and two current Saddleback students who wish to remain anonymous.

Besides Mathur and Wagner--who was just witnessed a couple weeks ago giving the invocation before Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's stump speech in Anaheim for Orange County sheriff candidate Bill Hunt--defendants named in the complaint include the other six South Orange County Community College District trustees, who include Orange County Republican Party chairman emeritus, former Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange employee and former seminary student Tom Fuentes. Saddleback College President Tod Burnett is also named as a defendant.

All were served papers today, according to Americans United.

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