Students Disciplined for Praying Settle Case Against College

Alameda, CA – Two college students who were disciplined for praying have achieved a settlement that retracts their discipline and pays their attorney’s fees, ending nearly two years of legal wrangling.

The incident that ignited the case happened in December 2007 when an instructor at the College of Alameda complained about a private, consensual prayer in a shared faculty office between a student and a sick teacher. The administration swiftly reacted by issuing formal notices of intent to suspend both the student and a fellow bystander student, holding disciplinary hearings, and imposing written warnings.

Pacific Justice Institute staff attorney Matthew McReynolds sent multiple demand letters advising the College of the students’ constitutional rights. Because the administration failed to respond, the students filed suit in San Francisco federal court (Kandy Kyriacou & Ojoma Omaga vs. Peralta Community College District). Kyriacou and Omaga were represented by PJI affiliate attorneys Steven N. H. Wood and Christopher Schweickert.

The College sought dismissal of the suit, arguing that prayer is akin to protests or demonstrations and presumptively disruptive. But federal district court judge Susan Illston disagreed, ruling that prayer is protected speech under the First Amendment. After the students appeared on Fox News in April 2009, the College also asked the court to censor the students from disclosing information about their case. The court refused. After these rulings the College eventually agreed to back down and also pay attorney’s fees after two years of litigation.

Among other points, the settlement contains an express acknowledgment that prayer on campus is protected free speech and free exercise of religion.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that student speech is entitled to special protections because the college campus is ‘peculiarly the marketplace of ideas,’” stated Steven Wood, one of the lawyers for the students. “But even there, the price of liberty is still eternal vigilance. Although this case had a shocking start, we are gratified that it ended with the College eager to affirm that prayer is protected,” Wood continued. “At PJI we will remain vigilant and ready to defend other students who encounter such heavy-handed treatment,” said Brad Dacus, president of PJI.