Americans United for Separation of Church and State has asked a federal appeals court to stop a Southern California community college from proselytizing and imposing prayers at public events.
The legal action comes in a lawsuit filed last year by Americans United on behalf of several students and faculty. At issue is the South Orange County Community College District’s practice of including prayer and other religious content in its events.
“Officials at these public schools are forcing religion on students, faculty and staff,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Their actions are unconstitutional and insensitive, and it’s time for this to stop.”
Plaintiffs assert that school officials routinely sponsor official invocations at events for students and faculty at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, including scholarship-award ceremonies, commencements and training programs for faculty.
AU filed the lawsuit in November of 2009. In May, a federal district court denied AU’s motion for a preliminary injunction, saying the request was too broad – although the court conceded that some of the district’s actions might be unconstitutional.
In a legal document filed yesterday, AU asks the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn that ruling.
Document PDF can be seen here: http://www.au.org/media/press-releases/archives/2010/07/westphal-opening-appeal-brief.pdf
“Unless this Court intercedes, students and faculty will continue to be subjected to religiously divisive messages as the price for partaking of college life,” asserts the filing.
The Westphal v. Wagner lawsuit notes that students and faculty members have protested the mandatory prayers many times over several years. The student government of Saddleback College has twice passed resolutions opposing the prayer practice, and similar resolutions have been passed by the faculty’s Academic Senate of Saddleback College, the Academic Senate of Irvine Valley College, the statewide Academic Senate for California Community Colleges and the South Orange County Community College District Faculty Association.
Officials ignored the complaints and, in response, actually increased the religious content of these public events, attacking religious minorities and nonbelievers.
In August of 2009, Saddleback officials showed a video titled “God Bless the USA” during a faculty training session. The video included religious images and closed with two pictures of military personnel carrying a flag-draped coffin. 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.”
Making matters worse, attendance at some of these events is mandatory. For example, students who are awarded scholarships must attend a public ceremony or forfeit the financial aid.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are: Karla Westphal, Alannah Rosenberg, Margot Lovett and Claire Cesareo-Silva, all professors at Saddleback College; Roy Bauer, a professor at Irvine Valley College; Ashley Mockett, a former student at Saddleback and two current Saddleback students who have chosen to remain anonymous.
The litigation is being conducted by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and AU Madison Fellow Jef Klazen, as well as Christopher P. Murphy of Mayer Brown LLP in Los Angeles.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.