Friday, April 10, 2009

Students disciplined for praying can sue

Another public California community college is being sued for its treatment of religious expression by students. In this case, the students were threatened with suspension and future expulsion for having prayed in view of a teacher, as far as I can tell. Apparently the threatening letters that were sent to the students did not explain the offense. When the students sued, the college sought to have the case dismissed. The good news in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle is that a federal judge has ruled that the students may sue the college:

Two students who were threatened with suspension at the College of Alameda after one of them prayed with an ailing teacher in a faculty office can sue the community college district for allegedly violating their freedom of speech, a federal judge has ruled.

The students, Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga, said college officials at first told them they were being suspended for "disruptive behavior," then held disciplinary hearings and sent them letters warning that they would be punished if they prayed in a teacher's office again.

The women sued, and U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ruled in San Francisco that their case could proceed, saying a college student has the right to pray in private outside the classroom.

The students are represented by the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI). According to the PJI website:
Just before Christmas, 2007, two students at the College of Alameda, Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga, were sent letters declaring the school's intent to suspend them, and warning that further infractions could result in expulsion. The students at first thought the letters were a mistake, since they never stated how the students had violated school policies. School officials later said that Kandy was disciplined for praying outside of class for a sick teacher who bowed her head to receive the prayer. Ojoma was not part of that prayer, and her only offense appears to be that she met Kandy afterward within view of another teacher who complained.

When the College of Alameda refused to rescind the suspension letters or give the students clues as to what future prayers might get them expelled, PJI attorneys filed suit. Last week, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston rejected the College's attempts to dismiss the case, agreeing with the students that their allegations had merit.

PJI affiliate attorneys Steven N.H. Wood and Christopher J. Schweickert, of the Walnut Creek firm Bergquist, Wood and Anderson, LLP, represent the students along with PJI. Steven Wood commented, "To this day, the College of Alameda has never provided a real explanation for its threats to expel these students. But it has disciplined them for non-disruptive, private prayer between consenting adults. We will not stand by and let a college trample these fundamental rights."

Los Angeles City College is being sued over the treatment of a student who made a Christian speech to satisfy an assignment in his Speech class. The Alliance Defense Fund is representing that student, Jonathan Lopez.

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