The future of invocations at college ceremonies after settlement.

SOCCCD will continue invocations at certain events. (Lisa Humes/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0 license)

Carmen Ulloa

A “loophole” in a recent settlement  might allow an invocation to take place at this semester’s graduation ceremony  at Irvine Valley and Saddleback colleges.

For several years, Saddleback and Irvine Valley College have held official prayer at numerous events including scholarships ceremonies, the Chancellor’s opening sessions and graduations.

This practice caused indignation and unrest among students, professors, donors and community members which resulted in a lawsuit. Westphal vs Wagner was filed in Nov. 2009 at a District Court in Los Angeles. Defendants including Tod A. Burnett, president of Saddleback College, held that these invocations were constitutional and did not violate the establishment clause and continued to practice invocations despite the claims.

A settlement was achieved in early April 2011. The district will not continue with their 40 year invocation tradition at opening sessions, graduations and scholarship ceremonies. However, at any event in which an invocation is held by the district, students and staff are not required to attend and will not lose their privileges, employment status or benefits. The district will continue to direct the content and form of their events, select the speakers and the order in which they speak and invocation shall not exceed two minutes, with the speaker not delivering any religious remarks.

Thomas Monroe, 27, world religion and president of the Poetry Club, says that religion has its place and it doesn’t belong in school. According to Monroe, positions of authority who are reverent have the capacity of imposing their beliefs.

“Keep religion to yourself, keep it out of the government, keep it out of government funded institutions,” Monroe said.

However in this case, he thinks that at the graduation, all faiths, beyond atheists, should be able to worship according to their belief, choose a common ground or get rid of the practice. However, people who profess minorities’ beliefs should not try to impose their beliefs either.

“A moment of silent would be a lot more respectful,” Monroe said.

Nuraldin Ali, 18, international studies, lived in Egypt for some time. According to Ali, Egypt is a country where religion is heavily tied to the state. Although Coptic Christians also live in Egypt, the state promotes the practice of Islam.

“As a practicing Muslim, I enjoyed it,” Ali said. However Ali also said he is wholeheartedly not opposed to anyone wanting to say or hold prayers.

“I believe that the settlement worked out of the best,” Ali said. “The defendants shouldn’t have had to discontinue their religious tradition, but at the same time, no one should be forced to participate if they choose not to. ‘You have your faith, and I have mine’ (Qur’an 109:6).”

Allison Camelot from Saddleback’s sociology department said it was important to note that many of those who are opposed to prayer in public institutions are not atheists, agnostics, or non-Christians. They just believe in separation of church and state.

Tolerance is strongly encouraged in United States. The practice of tolerance can have a deterrent effect on those who practice it. Monroe thinks tolerance can be an open door to abuse as long as hate demonstrations are allowed. Where to draw the line still remains the question.

As of today the settlement is just words on paper. However, with a graduation ceremony coming up in May, the settlement will take life.  The graduation committee will choose whether or not to include an invocation, thanks to the “loophole”.

However, according to Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, there is no loophole in the settlement. 

“There’s nothing ambiguous here about graduation; the Agreement is clear that the decision is no longer up to the Board of Trustees, but will be made by the planning committee at each college.” Khan said.

The settlement will affect the future of the student population and there are only two students involved in this lawsuit. According to Monroe, this issue should also be about the students involvement and not only about the separation of the Church and the State.

“Students should have been involved because it is about them, they should know what is happening,” Monroe said. “But most of them are not interested in taking part of their community, have an opinion or having their voices heard.

Monroe thinks students must be taught to think critically. According to him, Orange County people live oblivious to whatever happens outside their area.

“It reminds me of rural town people who are uneducated and uninterested,” Monroe said. “Country folk with designer clothes and accessories.”

Invocations will cease at the Chancellor’s Opening Sessions and at scholarship ceremonies planned by the district or colleges. SOCCCD said in their press release that in exchange for these concessions, the plaintiffs dismissed their litigation with prejudice — which means that the case is over, and cannot be brought again.  

Photo credit:  Lisa Humes/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0 license

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