Two students filed a federal lawsuit this past Monday against the publicly-funded College of Alameda alleging that school officials at the California school threatened to expel them for praying.
The events prompting the lawsuit took place in December, 2007, a press release from the Pacific Justice Institute reports.
That month, student Kandy Kyriacou visited an instructor to give her a Christmas gift. Kyriacou found the instructor alone in her shared office. When the instructor indicated she was ill, Kyriacou offered to pray for her.
The instructor bowed her head and Kyriacou began to pray. They were then interrupted by another faculty member, Derek Piazza, who entered the room and said “You can’t be doing that here!”
Kyriacou left to join her friend and fellow student Ojoma Omaga. Piazza followed Kyriacou and repeated his rebuke. The students related that they were surprised by his intimidating behavior.
Three days before Christmas, both students received letters notifying them of the college’s retroactive “intent to suspend” them. While school policy requires such letters to state factual bases for the charges, the letter only vaguely accused the students of “disruptive or insulting behavior, willful disobedience . . . persistent abuse of college employees.”
An administrative hearing reportedly found Kyriacou’s prayer worthy of discipline and threatened suspension or expulsion for further infractions.
The students turned to the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) for assistance. PJI attorneys attempted to resolve the situation through demand letters, but the college did not respond.
PJI local affiliate attorneys Steven N. H. Wood and Christopher Schweickert made a final demand that college officials rescind disciplinary letters and acknowledge the students’ right to pray, but the college refused. On Monday, Wood, Schweickert, and PJI staff attorneys filed a federal lawsuit.
"It's outrageous," PJI President Brad Dacus stated. "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."
CNA spoke with Dacus in a Friday interview. Dacus said there had been no further progress on the case since the Monday filing.
“We’re starting the long litigation process,” he said.
“Defending the rights of students to pray in public places or in colleges or universities is the most fundamental protection of the free exercise of religion that we can imagine.
“These student’s rights were clearly violated, and they must be vindicated in the court of law,” Dacus told CNA.