Corralling Saddleback Sanctimony

Professors, Students Bring Lawsuit Against Religious Proselytism By Southern California Community College Officials

Mathematics professor Karla Westphal has seen enough.

After years of protesting invocations at numerous events at Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, Calif., this fall the faculty member witnessed the school’s most offensive behavior yet.

At the August 2009 Chancellor’s Opening Session, officials included a presentation of slides accompanied by the song “God Bless the USA.” The last two slides concluded the presentation with images of uniformed service members carrying a flag-draped coffin.

The superimposed text read: “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.”

After watching the completed slideshow, Westphal said she felt sick.

“I didn’t think the board could do anything that surprised me anymore,” she said, “but I was shocked. I’m very offended that they do this, and I’m very concerned for the message that it sends for our students. I’m very scared that they would have the audacity to do this.”

For years, the school’s chancellor, president and board of trustees have refused to listen to concerns from faculty members and students who want to end invocations and other forms of proselytism at university events. College officials have ignored legal advice from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Anti-Defamation League. Instead of respecting the beliefs of those working for and attending the college, they have responded by expanding the prayer practice and publicly attacking members of minority faiths and nonbelievers.

After sending four letters to the college requesting officials to stop violating the religious liberty rights of students and faculty, Americans United filed a lawsuit Nov. 19 against the South Orange County Community College District, challenging its practice of opening Saddleback Community College’s events with prayer.

AU’s complaint, filed in federal district court, asserts that school officials routinely sponsor official invocations at events for students and faculty, including scholarship-award ceremonies, commencement ceremonies and training programs for faculty. Many of these events are mandatory for students.

Westphal is a plaintiff in Westphal v. Wagner, along with Alannah Rosenberg, Margot Lovett and Claire Cesareo-Silvais, all professors at Saddleback. Roy Bauer, a professor at the district’s other institution, Irvine Valley College, has also joined the suit, as well as former Saddleback student Ashley Mocket and two current Saddleback students who have chosen to remain anonymous.

The plaintiffs assert that through the years, they have been subjected to unwanted religious worship at these events. Westphal recalled the first time she noticed the prayer was in 2004, when she attended a departmental scholarship ceremony to present an award to a student.

“When I saw the word ‘invocation’ in the program,” she said, “I was berating myself for my poor vocabulary because I was sure that word meant prayer, and it was inconceivable to me they would have a prayer at a public school event. I figured that would be so obviously wrong and that it didn’t happen in today’s society.”

But once Westphal witnessed the official prayer at the scholarship ceremony and graduation ceremony that year, she wrote to the Board of Trustees and spoke at their monthly meeting to oppose the religious practice.

Westphal again expressed her opposition in 2005 and 2006, and she told the board she would not attend that scholarship ceremony and commencement because the official prayer made her feel unwelcome. She said she also did not want to have her presence interpreted by the students as “condoning or accepting [the Board’s] decision to impose a religious event on a community as diverse as [Saddleback’s].”

Others joined with Westphal in their opposition, with several groups passing resolutions opposing the prayer practice, including the Saddleback College Academic Senate, the Irvine Valley College Academic Senate, Saddleback’s Associated Student Government, the Academic Senate for California Colleges and the South Orange County Community College District Faculty Association.

Instead of fixing the problem, school officials exacerbated the situation, seeking to prove their point by including even more divisive religious statements.

The prayers, which were originally limited to the graduation and scholarship ceremonies, were extended to the August 2007 Chancellor’s Opening Session and have remained part of that ceremony ever since.

At the 2008 scholarship ceremony, Trustee Don Wagner, who is now running for a seat in the California Assembly, directed his invocation at students, faculty and Americans United. AU, he said, “has contacted this college to pursue its agenda of driving God from the public square.

“If you don’t believe in God, that’s fine,” he told the audience. “But if you do believe, I would ask you, personally and not on behalf of the government, to take this moment to thank Him, for the many gifts you believe you have received from Him, including the opportunity to pursue an education in a country explicitly founded on the belief that we are endowed by our Creator with the gift of liberty.”

After receiving criticism for this statement – with some donors even saying they were so offended they would no longer fund scholarships through the college – Wagner responded publicly, “I do not back away, nor do I apologize for any of [my words], nor do I intend to.”

In an email correspondence regarding the 2008 Chancellor’s Opening Session, Trustee John S. Williams, who is also a defendant in this case, offered to give the invocation.

In response, Wagner wrote, “As for the invocation, John, give ’em hell!”

As the years went on, things continued to escalate. At the 2009 commencement, Trustee Thomas A. Fuentes, also a defendant, gave an invocation beginning with, “Almighty and eternal God, you in whom America proclaims, ‘In God We Trust,’ you the one to whom America declares ourselves, ‘One Nation Under God,’ you whom our leaders beseech when they say, ‘God Bless America,’ we thank you for this beautiful morning of celebration.”

Westphal and other plaintiffs were in attendance for this graduation ceremony, holding up signs that read “Respect Everyone’s Beliefs.” Westphal said she now attends the graduation ceremonies in order to honor her students, despite the offensive invocations.

“Fuentes has twice begun his prayers with an almost in-your-face reference to God in American culture,” Westphal recalled. “He has brought the political debate into the prayer.”

At the most recent Chancellor’s Opening Session, where the slideshow was also presented, Trustee Williams referenced the Bible and then told a story about how those who did not believe would go to hell. He then asked everyone to join in the invocation.

Saddleback has chosen David L. Llewellyn Jr., a Religious Right activist, as one of its lawyers. Since learning about the lawsuit, Llewellyn has told Inside Higher Ed that “there’s a general hostility toward religion that groups like Americans United have.” (Llewellyn notes on his Web site that he was once featured on the cover of California Lawyer as “God’s Lawyer.”)

Richard Katskee, AU’s assistant legal director, said it’s not acceptable for the government to favor one faith over others, or religion over non-religion.

“Prayer and religious worship are intimate matters that must be freely undertaken and never coerced,” Katskee said. “This litigation is designed to remind community college officials of that fact.” Katskee is overseeing the case in collaboration with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. AU Madison Fellows Jef Klazen and Taryn Null, as well as Allen Erenbaum and Christopher P. Murphy of Mayer Brown LLP in Los Angeles, are assisting.