Possible clash looming for SOCCCD

The practice of the South Orange County Community College District Board of Trustees having an invocation formally included in such events as the commencement and scholarship award ceremonies are placing the district in danger of a lawsuit over possible First and Fourteenth Amendment violations.

The First Amendment establishes the separation of church and state, while the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits any State interference with regard to individual civil rights.

Both are cited by groups such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union as grounds for holding the board in violation of both state and federal law.

According to Saddleback instructor Karla Westphal, who presented a historical analysis of case law at the federal level to a recent AU meeting, “the laws governing separation are very clear, that invoking prayer at ceremonies such as the scholarship ceremony, violates constitutional law.”

Westphal concedes that the law is not as clear regarding invocations at commencement ceremonies or in-service meetings. The tendency of the courts, she said, “is to treat each case as a separate issue,” thus creating a body of law which is confusing as well as appearing to be contradictory. Nevertheless, the risk to the district could be considerable.

Although recent Supreme Court decisions have made the distinction between what precisely constitutes an appropriate separation of secular and religious activities, sufficient rulings at the federal level exist to justify a civil liberties organization mounting what could be a costly and protracted legal battle for the district.

The costs for such a lawsuit would be borne by the district, and in addition to the considerable financial outlay, the litigation would add yet another distraction to a board that has been repeatedly criticized by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges ACCJC for excessive interference in academic affairs and that is saddled with major unresolved issues including the failure to successfully conclude salary negotiations with the SOCCCD faculty and the struggling investment in ATEP, which has absorbed nearly $25 million in district financial resources without as yet yielding comparable academic benefits. There has also been political fallout as some sponsors of the Saddleback Foundation have removed their scholarship funding from that organization in favor of less controversial avenues because of the Board’s insistence on pursuing what many view as a private agenda.

Concern for that agenda was especially high following remarks made by current board president, Trustee Donald Wagner during an invocation at the May 15 Saddleback College Scholarship Ceremony. A video of those remarks can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aM-PA67JA9s.

Saddleback instructor Carmenmara Hernandez-Bravo, in a letter read to the board at the subsequent monthly board meeting said her purpose in doing so was “to pass on the concerns of students and parents who [had] spoken to me since that event.” Many of the students felt “disrespected”, she said, “because Trustee Wagner’s actions directly contradicted the things I teach my students about this country” concerning diversity and tolerance. According to Hernandez-Bravo, almost $20,000 in donations had already been rerouted from the foundation to a separate non-profit organization for distribution. This will continue, she said, until the donors “are assured that the board will respect the separation of church and state at Saddleback’s ceremony.” 

The challenges to the board on this issue are internal as well. Both the district and state Academic Senates, the Saddleback College Faculty Association and Associated Student Government have all passed resolutions requesting that the board cease pursuing an agenda that Westphal says “has no place in an academic environment.”

Stephanie Campbell, president of the Orange County chapter of the AU concurs. “The AU is not anti-religion, in fact our membership has a very broad religious demographic. What we are opposed to is politicians using their office to promote agendas, in this case, religion, in ways that violate others’ constitutional rights.”

Ashley Mockett, 27, English, founder of the Saddleback College Free Thinker’s Club attended the meeting and afterwards said, “One of our main priorities as a club is educating student voters on this issue and the importance of knowing where board members stand, especially in matters of church and state.”

All of the Trustees as well as SOCCCD Chancellor Rahgu Mathur were contacted for comment. Mathur deferred the inquiry to Wagner, who acknowledged that “litigation has been threatened” and said the board had “hired constitutional law experts to advise us in the matter.” Wagner indicated that Chapman University Law School Dean John Eastman was leading that group and the work was being done pro bono. Wagner could not say how long this process would take, but stated “We intend to continue with invocations at this time.”

Trustee David Lang said, “My views on this subject are well known and somewhat at odds with a majority of my colleagues on the board. At the organizational meeting several years ago, while serving as President of the board, I was outvoted (as I recall 6-1) to replace the current invocation with a thought for the day or moment of silence to eliminate the potential constitutional issues that religious invocations might raise. My views on this matter have not changed.”

Wagner would not speculate on what the Board will do in the event of unfavorable advice, other than to say that they “would consider all options available to them.”