College of Alameda

Attorneys representing two students who have been threatened with expulsion by a California college because of a prayer for a sick professor say a federal judge has refused the school’s efforts to have the case dismissed.

“It’s outrageous,” said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, which is working on the case brought by students Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga of the College of Alameda in Alameda, near Oakland.

“Since when does praying for a sick teacher to get well – with her consent – earn a suspension? This is not just a constitutional violation; it is a complete lack of common sense. These students were not looking for a fight, but since the school to this day insists that it can expel them if they pray again, we will have to resolve it in federal court,” he said.

The public-interest legal group said the decision by a San Francisco federal judge means the lawsuit will move forward.

The case was prompted by an incident just before Christmas in 2007 in which the students went to deliver a Christmas gift to a professor.

“Kandy found the instructor alone in her shared office,” according to Pacific Justice. “When the instructor indicated she was ill, Kandy offered to pray for her. The instructor bowed her head, and Kandy began to pray – until she was interrupted by another faculty member, Derek Piazza, who walked in and said, ‘You can’t be doing that in here!’ Kandy quickly left and rejoined her friend and fellow student, Ojoma Omaga. Piazza followed Kandy outside and repeated his rebuke.”

While the students reported they were surprised by the teacher’s aggressive behavior, they were stunned when, days later, they both got letters notifying them of the college’s retroactive “intent to suspend” plan.

The letters, however, provided no facts on which to make such a threat, listing only vague references to “disruptive or insulting behavior” and “willful disobedience.”

School officials informed them during administrative hearings that Kyriacou was being disciplined for praying for the sick teacher. Omaga was not part of the prayer, and her offense apparently was that she was with Kyriacou a short time later.

The lawsuit was filed when the college refused to rescind the letters, leaving the students in peril of suspension or expulsion for any other offense, such as praying on campus. The decision from U.S. District Judge Susan Illston turned back college attempts to deny the students a hearing on their complaint.

“To this day, the College of Alameda has never provided a real explanation for its threats to expel these students,” said Steven N.H. Wood of the Walnut Creek firm of Bergquist, Wood and Anderson, which is working with Pacific Justice on the case.

“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,” he said.

Said Dacus, “It is alarming that a publicly-funded college would seek to suspend and expel students for praying on campus, then dig in its heels to defend an untenable, unconstitutional position. We are encouraged that the federal court has given us the green light to pursue this case.”

 


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