Westphal v. Wagner

AU's Role: 
AU's Involvement Began: 
November 2009
Status: 

The South Orange County Community College District operates two community colleges in Orange County, California — Saddleback College and Irvine Valley College.  Members of the District’s Board of Trustees deliver prayers at scholarship-award ceremonies (which are mandatory for students receiving scholarships) and graduations, training programs for faculty, building dedications, and other significant events.  In response to complaints, trustees have embellished the prayers with attacks on religious minorities and nonbelievers:  At Saddleback’s 2008 scholarship ceremony, for example, the Board president justified the prayers by declaring that “the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens believe [in God],” and dismissed those who are uncomfortable with the official prayers as “too uncertain in the strength of their own views . . . [to] abide any mention in public of the divine.”  And at a 2009 faculty-training program, the District presented a slideshow entitled “God Bless the USA,” which preached that “Jesus Christ . . . died for your soul.”  On November 19, 2009, Americans United challenged the presentations on behalf of five faculty members, two students, and one former student.  We began by seeking a preliminary injunction to have the prayers discontinued while the lawsuit was ongoing.  The district court denied the motion, and we appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Most Recent Developments: 

Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan presented oral argument on the preliminary-injunction appeal on December 6, 2010; we are awaiting a decision from the Ninth Circuit.

Meanwhile, the case has continued before the district court.  After several rounds of discovery, the Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment.   On November 4, 2010, the district court granted Defendants’ summary-judgment motion in part – and then on January 28, 2011, in response to cross-motions for reconsideration and Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment, the court vacated its November 4th ruling and issued a revised ruling.   The court held that:  (1) the 2008 scholarship-ceremony invocation and the “God Bless the USA” presentation violated the Establishment Clause, and that Plaintiffs are entitled to relief for these violations; (2) that Plaintiffs are entitled to an injunction directing Defendants to comply with the Board’s December 7, 2009 Prayer Policy, which requires District officials to pre-screen audiovisual presentations for “inappropriate religious or other content” and forbids “presenting personal comments with sectarian religious content at District or college events”; and (3) that generic, non-sectarian prayers can continue to be presented at District and college events.  Judgment has not yet been entered.