South Orange County Community College District Settles Prayer Lawsuit

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The South Orange County Community College District (SOCCCD) has settled a suit brought by some of its teachers and one former student over the practice of opening prayers at various official district events.

The plaintiffs in Westphal v. Wagner--which references Karla Westphal, a Saddleback professor who was one of the plaintiffs, and Donald Wagner, the former SOCCCD board president who is now a state assemblyman--sought a ban on prayers at the chancellor's opening session and scholarship ceremonies at the district's campuses, Irvine Valley College and Saddleback College in Mission Viejo.

Under the pact the district made with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Washington, D.C.-based group that represented the plaintiffs, commencement ceremonies will continue to include either a moment of silence or nonsectarian prayer.

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Don Wagner, gone but not forgotten.
Last May, federal district Judge R. Gary Klausner denied a preliminary injunction against SOCCCD invocations at graduations, leading to an appeal before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justices Harry Pregerson, 87, who was appointed by then-President Lyndon Johnson; and George W. Bush appointees Carlos T. Bea, 76; and Richard R. Clifton, 60, were to hear a request for a permanent injunction this week. The settlement canceled that.

At a hearing on a preliminary injunction in December, questioning seemed to indicated some justices had no problem with prayers on the public campus per se, with one noting, "There is a long line of ceremonial invocations that have been upheld as constitutional."

But at least a couple jurists were alarmed over the evangelical invocation Wagner made at one district function and the screening of a video that ended with the phrase, "Only two people died for you" before melting into the words: "Jesus and the American soldier."

The justices also wondered who was left to receive relief from the case, since Wagner went to the assembly, fellow defendant Raghu Mathur resigned as chancellor, trustee John Williams was in the process of resigning and the student plaintiff had transferred to UC Berkeley.

"Only the professors are left," one justice mused.

Here is the settlement agreement:

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3 comments
Roy Bauer
Roy Bauer

Matt, you write that, according to the settlement, “commencement ceremonies will continue to include either a moment of silence or nonsectarian prayer.”

That is not entirely correct. If you visit our post concerning the settlement:

http://dissenttheblog.blogspot...

you’ll find copies of the settlement and its "exhibit A." Those documents make clear that the settlement transfers the decision of whether to have an invocation to “event planners” at the college in question (and away from the board of trustees). I quote the resolution below:

Within 30 days of the effective dates of this Agreement, the Board shall adopt the Resolution attached as Exhibit A to this Agreement….

The Resolution:

The district desires to expand upon Resolution No. 09-23, and provide guidelines to the planners of important District and college events if they choose to invite a speaker to deliver brief , personal remarks in the form of an invocation, a moment of silence, or inspirational message….Whereas the purpose of these guidelines is to continue to allow the event planners to direct the form and content of their own events, including the selection of the speakers at those events…without monitoring or review by the Board of Trustees….…The decision on whether to select a speaker to deliver personal remarks in the form of an invocation, moment of silence, of opening and/or closing message, not to exceed two minutes, at important District and college events shall rest within the sole discretion of the event planners….…the person selected…shall be provided with a copy of this resolution…shall be informed of the District’s request that any personal remarks be non-sectarian; shall be informed that the opportunity to speak at a District or college event must not be exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief…. [END]

We're surprised you didn't mention other facts. If you read the settlement, you'll find that the district agrees to pay AUSCS (which provided legal representation for plaintiffs) with $250,000. Further, we have determined that the district has already paid Jones Day, the firm that represented the district in this case (and also represented Mike Carona in federal court), over $1,000,000. (See http://dissenttheblog.blogspot...

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