What kind of prayer was it?

prayerOne must really think through this article from the San Francisco Chronicle about some students, disciplined for praying in a college faculty’s office, being permitted to sue the college for violating their free speech rights. The story’s problem, and this may not be the newspaper’s fault, is that there seems to be little to no explanation for why the college attempted to punish the students in the first place.

The key to the story is the context of the alleged incident. In other words, how well can a reporter paint a word picture about an event that is at the center of intense litigation? Here is what we get in the lead:

ALAMEDA – Two students who were threatened with suspension at the College of Alameda after one of them prayed with an ailing teacher in a faculty office can sue the community college district for allegedly violating their freedom of speech, a federal judge has ruled.

The students, Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga, said college officials at first told them they were being suspended for “disruptive behavior,” then held disciplinary hearings and sent them letters warning that they would be punished if they prayed in a teacher’s office again.

The women sued, and U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ruled in San Francisco that their case could proceed, saying a college student has the right to pray in private outside the classroom.

Although a public college, like other government agencies, must refrain from endorsing religion, Illston said in her March 31 ruling that an objective observer probably wouldn’t have thought that the Alameda community college was making any such endorsement just because the teacher bowed her head while the student was praying.

From the first four paragraphs of the article, we have a picture of a scene that includes two students praying with a sick teacher in a faculty office and that the teacher may have bowed her head during the alleged prayer. Was the office exclusively the teacher’s (no)? How sick was the teacher? How long was the prayer? What words were used in the prayer? Was the teacher known to be one to pray with students in private?

An even more interesting assumption that the newspaper made throughout the article is whether the prayer was a Christian prayer, a Hindu prayer, a Jewish Muslim prayer, or a Jewish prayer. One could assume that it was either faith or another one not mentioned in my off-the-top-of-my-head list. From a legal perspective it probably does not matter, but shouldn’t it matter for a news story?

The key to this scene is whether this prayer was indeed voluntary and whether or not it was the person’s office. Also important and very unclear from the story: who protested the prayer, and who filed the disciplinary action against the students? Did the teacher protest at all? Was the prayer a private one in the sense that only the three participants knew about it until they were interrupted? Or were other teachers in the room, or was the door open and others could observe the prayer?

The story gives the sense that the prayer was completely non-disruptive to a reasonable person. That is, a reasonable person drawn from an average sample of Californians or Americans. But I get a sense from the article that the average person at this college may not appreciate public manifestations of faith in a deity.

Later in the article, we get these details about the incident:

The case dates from the fall of 2007, when Kyriacou and Omaga were studying fashion design and merchandising at the two-year college and took breaks from class to pray with each other and other students on a balcony, according to their suit.

Kyriacou prayed with the teacher, Sharon Bell, at an office Bell shared with other teachers, on two occasions in November and December 2007. The second time, a day when Bell was feeling ill, another teacher entered the office and told Kyriacou, “You can’t be doing that in here,” and the student stopped praying and left, the suit said.

Kyriacou and Omaga received suspension notices 10 days later. Omaga was accused of praying disruptively in class, Illston said, citing testimony at the students’ disciplinary hearings.

Did the other teacher file the complaint, or did the incident become general public knowledge? I know this is early in the case and that at least one side is likely not commenting on the case, but the article should at least acknowledge that there are many facts unknown at this point.

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  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    You’re right — the article is distressingly incomplete.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    If they were alone in that room and the prayer was voluntary, it is hard — no, impossible — to see this as anything other than a violation of equal access or the singling out of religious speech for punishment.

  • Dave

    What was disrupted by the prayer?

  • Jerry

    Terry, I agree with you – it reads like “Secularism Gone Wild” to me but until we have the complete story, I’ll reserve final judgment. We don’t have all the sides speaking yet.

    I do hope we get that final story. Too often the media will report the sensational charges and ignore what is often a pedestrian outcome except perhaps for a one or two line summary.

    Stories like this do give me more sympathy for why the feeling of being under siege is so widespread. From what I’ve seen reported so far, this incident was treated about the same as it would have been if some people had been caught smoking tobacco in a building. I’m afraid there would have been less of a reaction if they had been caught smoking marijuana.

  • gfe

    I found a copy of the court decision here. I think the article was a reasonably decent summary of the decision for an article of that length, although of course it would have been better if the plaintiffs and defendants could have been interviewed.

    Unfortunately, we learn very little from the ruling (or the article) about the college’s side of the story. I’d certainly like to know what it is.

  • Steve S. Roisman

    These students were prayimg together on school property and they were told not to do so….the schools have the responsibility to manage the curriculum….not the students period….students are not on an equal status as teachers and students have to learn from the teachers period…

  • http://tmatt.net tmatt


    If they were told not to, who filed the complaint?

  • Jerry

    gfe, thanks for posting that link to the judge’s decision. I am not a lawyer, but it seemed very reasonable to me.

  • Martha

    This sounds like there is more behind it than we’re being told.

    Were these two students considered “trouble-makers”? By which I mean, were they evangelising other students and the staff, and this was seen as disruptive?

    Who did make the complaint, if the prayer was (1) done in a teacher’s office and not in a public classroom (2) the teacher didn’t object?

    I’m not blaming the college in this; if the students were pushy towards other students who complained, if they did indeed pray during class time (instead of attending to the lessons) and if they were over-zealous, they could indeed be at fault and discipline has to be maintained.

    It is just that the facts as reported do seem like the school were making a storm in a teacup over one instance, and that surely isn’t the whole story.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Having been the recipient of left-wing rants, including from professors, when in college–it is amazing how prayer can become embroiled in disciplinary actions, lawsuits, etc. Somehow I don’t think the First Amendment Freedom of Religion was meant to make it MORE difficult to be a prayer than to be a political haranguer. Do the students who terrorize conservative speakers ever get into any serious trouble?? I never see stories of such consequences, but, then again, doing strong follow-up on some kinds of stories is not the media’s strong suit.

  • Tyson K

    I had the same thoughts as Martha upon reading this. It seems as though perhaps the students were generally disruptive, and this incident with the prayer was just a single incident that threw everything crazy– “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” if you will. But of course the sensationalism of the incident was far more interesting than the broader context to the media. There just has to be more to this than the Chronicle‘s giving us.

  • http://sands868@sbcglobal.net Steve S. Roisman

    Our public school system has little need for private prayers and meditations which are performed at home or in legitimate houses of worship period….