Battle lines are forming over a lawsuit filed by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State that aims to stop prayers and invocations inside a South Orange County community college district.
The group, led by activist Barry W. Lynn, announced recently that it is suing Don Wagner, Republican candidate for the open 70th Assembly District seat and President of the Board of Trustees of the South Orange County Community College District, and other district officials. The case, filed in the United States District Court, is titled Westphal v. Wagner.
The lawsuit challenges the district’s practice of opening its events with prayer. The District includes two Southern California community colleges – Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and Irvine Valley College in Irvine; the legal action challenges prayers at Saddleback.
The AU lawsuit asserts that school officials routinely sponsor official invocations at events for students and faculty, including scholarship-award ceremonies, commencement ceremonies and training programs for faculty.
“These community colleges need to stop promoting religion and get back to the business of education,” said Lynn, who is AU’s executive director. “Faculty and students should be able to attend school events without being subjected to official prayer and religious worship.”
An AU press release states that “plaintiffs assert they are subjected to unwanted religious worship at these events, a stance AU backs in its lawsuit.”
The AU press release also stated that “Saddleback College officials showed a video titled ‘God Bless the USA’ during a faculty training session. The video included religious images and closed with two pictures of military personnel carrying a flag-draped coffin. Superimposed on those images was the following text: ‘Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you. Jesus Christ and the American G.I. One died for your soul, the other died for your freedom.’ The legal action asserts that these types of activities subject many in the audience to ‘unwanted religious practices.’”
The lawsuit alleges that Wagner and the college district's board of trustees ignored repeated demands from professor Karla Westphal and others to stop invocations at district functions, according to a press release issued by Wagner’s campaign team.
The press release also states:
“However, Wagner is accurately quoted in the lawsuit as having recognized that, ‘[h]istorically, at events such as [graduations, award ceremonies, and board meetings,] we . . . take the opportunity to offer a moment of thanksgiving to God.’ Wagner also noted ‘that America's founders invoked the name of God, and encouraged and participated in religious ceremonies in government facilities.’ Wagner said he is looking forward to defending the principles of religious freedom under assault from the plaintiffs and the so-called ‘Americans United’ group in this case.”
Constitutional law scholar and Dean of the Chapman University School of Law, John Eastman, is representing Wagner.
More articles by Alex Murashko at LA Church & State Examiner.