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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