ALAMEDA — Two students are suing the Peralta Community College District, arguing that their civil rights were violated after administrators at the College of Alameda threatened to suspend them for praying on campus.
Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga, who are Christian, say they were formally threatened with suspension a year and a half ago when an instructor became angry with them after witnessing Kyriacou praying with another instructor.
"The main thrust of our case is that private prayer between consenting adults cannot be prohibited by the government," said attorney Kevin Snider of the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit group that specializes in cases involving religion, parental rights and civil liberties.
Along with seeking to have their suspension letters rescinded, Kyriacou and Omaga want the district to revise its student conduct policy to allow student prayer and religious expression. They also want the district to pay their attorney and court costs.
Peralta spokeswoman Shirleen Schermerhorn declined to comment on the case, which was filed Dec. 24 in U.S. District Court.
U.S. District Judge Susan Illston on March 31 rejected an attempt by the college district to dismiss the case, a ruling that the students' attorneys say indicates their lawsuit has merit.
"It's not about money at all, it's about principle," said Steven Wood, a Walnut Creek attorney who filed the lawsuit. "The students want the district to admit that it was wrong, apologize and recognize that they have the right to take part in nondisruptive prayer."
According to court documents, Kyriacou was praying with an instructor in December 2007 — after the instructor said she was feeling ill — when another instructor entered the office and told the student that praying was not allowed. Soon afterward, Kyriacou was talking with Omaga in a hallway, where the same instructor confronted them and said, "You can't be doing that in there. That's our office."
Less than a week later, both students received letters informing them that they were being suspended, citing violation of Section III.A.12 of the district's student conduct policy, which reads, "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 on or near the school premises or public sidewalks adjacent to school premises."
Peralta administrators later backed away from the suspensions after meeting with the students and their attorney. Instead, administrators formally warned the women that they cannot engage in disruptive behavior.
Wood said Wednesday that he will meet with Peralta lawyers within the next several weeks to try to resolve the case, including through mediation. He said they are seeking a revision of the district's policy so that prayers would not be prohibited as long as they are not disruptive.
If they cannot reach agreement, the case could go to a jury, Wood said.
Kyriacou and Omaga routinely pray while at school, according to court documents.
According to the complaint, "They sometimes take short breaks to quietly pray with each other or with other classmates on the balcony outside class," and Kyriacou "occasionally makes quiet, nondisruptive personal prayers during class and lab, such as saying 'Lord Jesus, help me.' "
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