Lawsuit Challenging Religious Activity At Calif. Community College Reaches Settlement

An Americans United lawsuit that challenged official prayers and other religious presentations at events sponsored by a Southern California community college has been settled out of court.

The settlement brings an end to a legal challenge filed in November of 2009 by Americans United on behalf of several students and faculty at the South Orange County Community College District.

Plaintiffs asserted that school officials routinely sponsored invocations at events for students and faculty at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, including scholarship award ceremonies, commencements and Chancellor’s Opening Sessions (training programs for faculty).

AU noted that 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. (See “Corralling Saddleback Sanctimony,” January 2010 Church & State.)

Under the terms of the settlement, school officials have agreed to discontinue official prayers before scholarship ceremonies and before the Chancellor’s Opening Sessions. A planning committee at each college will decide each year whether to have a non-sectarian prayer or moment of silence during graduation ceremonies. (Previously, this task had been left to the college’s board of trustees, which almost always chose to include religious messages.)

“I’m pleased that we have reached a fair settlement in this case,” said Barry W. Lynn, AU executive director. “Public community colleges should respect the rights of all faculty, staff members and students, and I believe this settlement provides a framework to do that.”

Plaintiffs in the Westphal v. Wagner lawsuit had protested the prayers many times over several years. The student government of Saddleback College twice passed resolutions opposing the prayer practice, and 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 had also opposed the prayer practice.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit were: 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 a current Saddleback student.

The litigation was conducted by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, AU Madison Fellow Taryn Wilgus Null, former AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and former AU Madison Fellow Jef Klazen. Christopher P. Murphy of Mayer Brown LLP in Los Angeles also assisted.