UPDATED: College Board Sued Over Prayers Weighs Prayer Policy Tonight

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UPDATED WITH COMMENT FROM THE ATTORNEY FOR THE DISTRICT . . .

Ever go to a school board meeting and have a tent revival break out?

Trustees who lord over the South Orange County Community College District (SOCCCD) and are being sued over their frequent and apparently mandatory use of official prayers are scheduled tonight to consider a new policy concerning those moments of supposed intimate connection with a greater power.

Think of it like creating a universe and then coming back thousands of years later to create the creator of that universe.


The SOCCCD district encompasses Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and Irvine Valley College in Irvine. Item 6.1 on tonight's board agenda is titled "Invocations at District and College Events" and advises, "Adopt Resolution 09-23 regarding district policy on invocations at district and college events."

Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State on Nov. 20 filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against the SOCCCD over official prayers during public ceremonies. Westphal v. Wagner, which references plaintiff and Saddleback professor Karla Westphal and SOCCCD board president and state Assembly candidate Don Wagner, includes five district professors and two students and one former student at Saddleback as plaintiffs.

The board, chancellor and Saddleback's president are accused in court documents of routinely sponsoring official invocations at events for students and faculty, including scholarship-award ceremonies, commencement ceremonies and training programs for faculty. Americans United contends some events stipulate mandatory attendance and that students, faculty members, Saddleback's student government, the district's faculty association and the state, Saddleback and Irvine Valley academic senates have each complained about the forced prayers to no avail.

Sacramento-based, SOCCCD-retained attorney David Llewellyn, who often represents conservative Christian groups and has been dubbed "God's Lawyer," tells the Weekly the resolution before the board tonight was sparked by Americans United for Separation of Church and State but not its lawsuit. He explains in an email the policy revision was written before the lawsuit was filed, when Americans United "had asked the district to review its policies and practices, and the district did so and the resolutions were the result."

"But apparently the process did not move quickly enough to satisfy AU," Llewellyn continued, "so the lawsuit was filed before the resolutions were adopted."

The attorney stepped in to answer for SOCCCD officials who had been asked by the Weekly if the resolution was placed on the agenda as a result of the suit or merely coincidental to it. "[T]he resolutions were not merely 'coincidental,'" Llewellyn wrote, "but they were not a response to the lawsuit either."

He previously vowed
that the legal dispute over prayers will be settled in favor of the district, which, he said, has simply followed, "The tradition of opening public events with an invocation" that "goes back to the founding of the country."

If the district is on solid legal footing, it is curious why the board needed to heed the call to review its prayer policies and introduce a resolution to "preserve" that tradition. The proposal is split into three sections . . .

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Sections 2 and 3 really get curious in light of the lawsuit . . .

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The Americans United case against the district includes a video titled God Bless the USA that was shown during a faculty training session this past August at Saddleback. It included religious images and closed with two pictures of military personnel carrying a flag-draped coffin over which came 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 SOCCCD event attendees to "unwanted religious practices," according to the complaint.

The policy revision, then, would seem to acknowledge that was bad--mmm-kay?--as a video like that would now have to be pre-screened, and all religious images and inferences would be strip-mined out.

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County of Orange
Storyteller John Williams
Meanwhile, the bit in the third section about restricting one's personal religious comments would take aim at district trustee and County of Orange Public Administrator John Williams' introduction to his prayer at an August board session. He essentially told those who question Bible stories they are going to hell.

"Before the invocation, I thought I'd tell a little biblical story," Williams began. "Today's story is about Jonah. In grade school one day, a little girl spoke to her teacher about Jonah and how he was swallowed by a whale. The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though they're a large mammal they have very small throats. The little girl said, 'But how can that be? Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and the Bible says so.' Again the teacher said it's physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human. Undaunted, the little girl said, 'When I get to heaven, I will ask Jonah.' To this the teacher replied, 'What if Jonah has gone to hell?' The little girl replied, 'Then you can ask him.' Please join me in the invocation now . . ."

Since the board videotapes its meetings, that footage apparently would have been edited out had the policy being considered tonight already been in place. Which brings us, brothers and sisters, to the 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Destroy All Evidence That Might Get Your Pious Ass Sued.
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