District claims victory in invocation lawsuit. Opponents say “It’s not over.”

MaryAnne Shults

According to a court ruling, the South Orange County Community College District apparently is within its rights to hold invocations at events held on its campuses.

Or is it?

Two sides battling over prayer in the public district are claiming victory following the release of an apparently narrow ruling Friday by District judge R. Gary Klausner. It’s unclear how far Klausner’s opinion goes.

A college district spokesperson announced in a press release that the Jan. 28 ruling said that “such speech…does not violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

The district’s attorney feels confident about the case.

“Every federal court to consider plaintiffs’ primary challenge in this case, whether nonsectarian invocations delivered at significant public college and university events violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, has upheld the constitutionality of such speech,” John A. Vogt said. “The federal District Court’s decision last week in Westphal v. Wagner is the latest block in this wall of precedent.”

But Ayesha N. Khan, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the lead attorney representing opponents of invocation, said the court’s decision was far more balanced than the district’s press release suggested.

“The court ruled that the trustees have twice violated the Constitution by making religiously hostile presentations, and the court ordered them not to engage in any such behavior in the future.” Kahn said. “So the district actually lost a significant portion of the case.”

Meanwhile opponents, who have waged a seven-year battle to halt invocations at district events, vowed to continue fighting.

“It’s not over,” said outspoken district critic, Irvine Valley College philosophy instructor Roy Bauer, in a lengthy blog.

The issue came to light initially in the spring 2004 at Saddleback’s scholarship ceremony when mathematics instructor Karla Westphal, an atheist, requested a moment of silence in lieu of formal prayer.

She was not alone as both students and other faculty members were also uncomfortable or offended. Westphal gained support from Saddleback anthropology instructor Claire Cesareo-Silva who was offended by a prayer spoken at the 2006 scholarship ceremony.

Soon, Saddleback College President Tod Burnett as defendants. Mather, a strong supporter of prayer in public schools, is no longer with the district.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs assert that the defendants violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution by including non-sectarian invocations at the named events. The plaintiffs who do not profess the faith in which such invocations are made, claim that such practice is offensive, excluding and intolerant. They consider it is a way of imposing a faith and making them feel as outsiders for not sharing the same beliefs as well as a form of attacking members of minority’s faiths and of nonbelievers through the invocation of the community’s preferred religion.

“The district has no authority to speak about religion,” Westphal told the Lariat during an interview in Dec. 2009. “It is illegal for them to assert a religious identity for the community. It makes me feel like I am an outsider.”

The plaintiffs moved the District Court for a preliminary injunction over such speech and subsequently the Court denied the motion.

SOCCCD then filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case.

In late January the Court granted the motion on plaintiff’s challenge and found that such speech, in this context, does not violate the First Amendment.

The defendants have maintained that the practice of including a brief, nonsectarian ceremonial invocation at significant District and college events is a tradition that traces its roots to the first graduation ceremony at Saddleback College over 40 years ago.

The court, in its conclusion of the memorandum of points and authorities in support of defendants’ motions to dismiss and strike wrote, “although some individuals may object to college invocations on religious, academic, public policy or personal grounds, the controlling constitutional principle is tolerance, not censorship. Religious expression sponsored by a college is not unconstitutional because it is offensive to some people,” citing O’Connor, 416 F.3d 1216.

Bauer also wrote in his blog the next step is further proposed judgments by both parties and a settlement hearing scheduled Feb. 17.

“We’ll have to wait until after the settlement conference to have much to say.” Bauer said in an e-mail. “This thing is far from over.”