On December 22, 2007, two students—Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga—at the College of Alameda received letters from the Vice President of Student Services notifying them that the College intended to suspend them. What did Ms. Kyriacou and Ms. Omaga do to deserve suspension? Did they assault someone? Did they verbally abuse a fellow classmate or faculty member? Did they destroy property or commit some campus crime? No. They prayed.
Besides the self-evident absurdity of this situation, the details reveal a more troubling institutional problem. According to court documents, the students prayed with each other outside of class during class breaks, prayed silently to themselves in class, and on one occasion, engaged in a consensual and student-initiated prayer with an ill faculty member in her office. For these actions, Mr. Kerry Compton, the Vice President of Student Services at the College, informed the students that they were being charged with violating school policy against:
Disruptive or insulting behavior, willful disobedience, habitual profanity or vulgarity, or the open and persistent defiance of the authority of, refusal to comply with directions of, or persistent abuse of, college employees in the performance of their duty . . . .
So according to the College, engaging in student-initiated, private, and consensual prayer is the equivalent of disruption, insults, profanity, vulgarity and abuse. Really? While this charge alone is ridiculous, it is perhaps more astonishing that the College held its ground. After Ms. Kyriacou and Ms. Omaga explained their actions to Mr. Compton, he banned such “disruptive” behavior and issued an official warning that any similar actions in the future “may result in further disciplinary action, including, but not limited to suspension or expulsion.”
In light of this overt threat by a high university official, the students sought relief in federal court to protect their constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion, among others. But even then, the College would not back down. Instead, the College sought to throw the case out of court on the grounds that its actions were necessary to prevent a government endorsement of religion. The Court wisely rejected this argument, because it has been well-understood for decades that there is a “crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.” See Bd. of Educ. of Westside Comty. Sch. v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 250 (1990).
In the wake of the Court’s strong decision rejecting the College’s motion, the College agreed to settle the case. But what is telling here is how far the College was willing to go to resist clearly protected speech and the reasons for its resistance. Engaging in a year and a half of litigation is not the reaction of a university welcoming of its students’ religious freedoms. Instead, its actions reveal a deep, unsettling hostility to religion that is all too prevalent at America’s institutions of higher education.