Monday, June 24, 2013

Contra SOCCCD prayer: it's all about who's appointed to those "commencement" committees!

     Here's some interesting background on the “Prayer” issue here at the South Orange County Community College District.
     As you know, Karla Westphal, a math instructor at Saddleback College, has for many years urged the board to back off of its practice of prayer, especially sectarian prayer, at district and college events. She has enjoyed the support of academic senates and other groups. Naturally, in defiance, the Wagner- and Fuentes-dominated board with then-Chancellor Mathur started laying on the religion mighty thick, which led to the “Westphal v. Wagner” litigation, of which I was a part.
     In the end, a settlement was reached according to which a “commencement committee” was supposed to decided independently—i.e., without the influence of trustees or college presidents—whether or not to have an invocation or prayer during commencement ceremonies.
     As you know, Saddleback College’s Tod Burnett immediately decided to defy the prima facie demands of the agreement (evidently on the basis of an alleged “loophole” in the "resolution" produced by the settlement), overriding the commencement committee's decision not to have an invocation. I suspect that the difficulty he has had in the last year finding another gig—his contract with our district is not liable to be renewed—has something to do with that peculiar action and news coverage concerning it. (Go ahead; Google "Tod Burnett.")
     I just wanted to remind everybody that the “prayer” issue actually has a long history in our district and that one needs to consider that issue against the backdrop of larger OC politics and trends.
     Consider, for example, the following:

1. WITHOUT A PRAYER (LA Times, Dec. 10, 1992)
     Trustee Harriett S. Walther has finally won her fight to cut the invocation at meetings of the Saddleback Community College District, a 25-year-old tradition. Walther has long worried about the potential illegality of mixing prayer with government meetings. . . . "We should err on the side of caution in dealing with the Constitution, which we have been sworn to uphold," she says. The vote was 4 to 3 on Monday—after that meeting's opening prayer.
     Harriett Walther (who, by the way, remains active) was an uncommonly independent trustee (1977-1996), though she was undoubtedly liberal on most issues. Her refusal to cater to the Faculty Association (faculty union)—at a time when that organization made unprincipled alliances with explicitly anti-faculty and conservative trustees purely for the sake of securing high salaries and benefits—made her unionists' public enemy #1.
     That was ridiculous. In truth, Harriett's values were likely closest, among trustees, to those of most faculty.
     Well, among her issues was her discomfort with “invocations” at BOT meetings. She prevailed.
     Alas, the heedless and irresponsible (and overtly political) right-wing board created by the faculty union (the FA supported Williams, Frogue, Lorch, Padberg, Wagner, Fuentes–until it was reformed in the early 2000s; even then, it continued to support the rat bastard Williams, a sore point among many of us in the Association) undid that bit of progress. Those people just did what they wanted, regardless of decency, best practices, tradition, or law. (Don't forget their repeated Brown Act violations.)

2. Prayer and being "out of the picture" at the South Orange County Community College District (Nov 4 06)

     The above 2006 DtB post referred to a Times article that reviewed the tenure of Joyce Greenspan, chief of the local (Long Beach/OC) ADL. Owing to my telephone call to her, Greenspan became involved in the flap over trustee Steve Frogue’s notorious “JFK Forum” back in 1997. (I won't go into all that.)
     Previously, she had come to the defense of an instructor (Richard Prystowsky) whose Holocaust course caught the lunatic attention of Frogue, an apparent Holocaust denier. (See also Froomkin.)
     In the Times article, Greenspan was asked about conditions in OC in 1981, when she took on the ADL job, and whether things had improved with regard to tolerance of minorities, etc.:
     In 1981 there was just a hint, a beginning of diversity in Orange County. But it was not a very diverse community, and looking at church-state issues, there wasn't a lot of tolerance for understanding that everybody was not looking at religion the same way. There were a great many issues having to do with local government, having to do with schools, having to do with any public area in which people were speaking as government representatives—teachers, principals, elected officials—and felt that they were speaking to people just like them….

     For instance, if you look at a number of city council meetings of those days, there would always be a prayer before a council meeting. Those meetings would begin with a very Christian prayer. It's a discomfort that people feel if you aren't Christian and a meeting is beginning with the invocation of a Christian prayer, it kind of leaves you out of the picture.

     Now, people are very careful. If they do a prayer, it's nonsectarian—not just nonsectarian Christian but nonsectarian.
True enough, I wrote at the time,
except at the South Orange County Community College District, where, routinely, Christian or Christianesque prayers are offered by the very theatrical Mr. Tom Fuentes. If you've ever heard one of his invocations, you know what I mean.

Her stalking off in a room of silence is sad, disturbing, and 
invigorating. You can't do much better than that!

     As I said, at one point, the board decided to turn up the heat and to up the religion factor. That provoked the lawsuit.
     As you know, invocations were given at our recent commencements. It is not clear to me whether the decisions to include these prayers was reached "independently" by the committees. It is important to notice, however, that at least in the case of IVC, the vast majority of committee members are directly answerable to the college President.
     So what do we do? Faculty (and classified) who believe in the First Amendment's anti-establishment clause need to consider getting on those committees and bringing our district in line with the more enlightened practices of institutions all around us.

     THE SETTLEMENT STATUS QUO: The board's all-important "resolution" regarding invocations is reproduced below (read especially the "therefore" half):

Click on graphic to ENLARGE
Click on graphic to ENLARGE
Click on graphic to ENLARGE
     For an overview of the prayer saga at SOCCCD, see socccd prayer


Anonymous said...

How does one get on the commencement committee? I don't recall it being up for grabs at our annual fall school meetings.

Roy Bauer said...

A question for the Academic Senate. I'll ask.

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