Lawsuit regarding meeting invocation still ongoing

Andre Mahmoudian

During this time last year, a lawsuit was filed by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of many faculty members and students from Irvine Valley and Saddleback College regarding orchestrated prayers by school officials during school meetings.

In May, a federal district court denied AU’s motion for a preliminary injunction, saying the request was too broad – although the court conceded that some of the district’s actions might be unconstitutional. In a legal document filed July 12, 2010, AU asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to appeal that ruling.

“Unless this Court intercedes, students and faculty will continue to be subjected to religiously divisive messages as the price for partaking of college life,” asserts the filing, according to a release on AU’s website.

Hence, Westphal v. Wagner, is still ongoing. The lead plaintiff is Karla Westphal, a mathematics instructor Saddleback, representing the dissenting faculty and students. The lead defendant is Donald Wagner, president of the Board of Trustees of the South Orange County Community College District.

The legal action specifically challenges the invocations held at Saddleback’s scholarship-award ceremonies, commencement ceremonies, training programs for faculty, and in particular, during the SOCCCD Board of Trustees meetings.

“When the prayers initially started I hoped to get it settled without a lawsuit and that just didn’t happen,” Westphal told the Orange County Register. “The suit is a culmination of a long process. I’ve been working with Americans United for a long time. They wrote letter to the board formally asking for the change.”

Another plaintiff in the case is Roy Bauer, a philosophy instructor at Irvine Valley College. Bauer is also the editor of “Dissent the Blog.” In this online blog he essentially reveals injustices made by school officials, among other things. After finding no invocations were involved in IVC commencement fliers from the past, he assumes that the organized prayers began sometime after 2000 or 2001.

“In my view, the pattern of actions taken by this district in recent years reveals an intent to provide and promote prayer in a manner suggesting imposition of religion (and typically a narrow kind of theism)…” said Bauer. “…despite the presence of numerous members of the public (and staff) who are not theists or are theists outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, Judeo-Christian prayers are offered and videos are shown, including one that declared that ‘Jesus’ died for our souls.”

He also pointed out that Wagner often refers to the suit and plaintiffs as ‘the atheists.’ In fact, however, some plaintiffs are not atheists.

According to a Resolution by the Board of Trustees, the motives of the invocations include invoking “divine guidance and blessing,” showing “respect for beliefs widely held among members of the community,” promoting “patriotism,” and honoring “America’s heritage.”

Wagner and the SOCCCD board are represented by attorney David Llewellyn, who is also a visiting professor at Chapman University who specializes in constitutional law.

“The tradition opening public events with an invocation goes back to the founding of the country,” said Llewellyn. “It’s as old as the country and the district would like to continue with that tradition.”