Teacher Can’t Be Sued Over Alleged Hostility to Religion, Court Says

By Mark Walsh — August 22, 2011 2 min read
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A California teacher is immune from a student’s lawsuit claiming that the teacher’s classroom comments were hostile to religion, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, declined to decide whether any of the teacher’s comments were actually hostile to religion to the point of violating the student’s First Amendment right to be free from government establishment of religion.

Instead, the panel held unanimously that it was not clearly established that a teacher could violate the establishment clause by appearing hostile to religion during class lectures. Thus, the teacher in this case was entitled to qualified immunity from the student’s lawsuit.

The Aug. 19 decision in C.F. v. Capistrano Unified School District involves a suit brought on behalf of a student who was a sophomore at Capistrano Valley High School in 2007 when he began the Advanced Placement European History course taught by James Corbett.

According to court papers, the teacher had told students in a letter that the course would be provocative and would prompt them to develop their critical-thinking skills. Students would be encouraged to disagree with the teacher as long as they could back up their arguments, the letter said.

The student, a Christian who believes in creationism, objected to numerous comments made by Corbett during the course, For example, Corbett said the strong religious beliefs of European peasants helped keep them from improving their position in society.

“When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth,” Corbett said in class. (The student surreptitiously recorded Corbett’s lectures, which the teacher claims violated the state education code, but that issue wasn’t before the court.)

The suit said Corbett also belittled creationism, and criticized a teacher at Capistrano Valley High who some 20 years ago had been involved in a controversy over his promotion of creation science. (According to court papers, Corbett is also Christian, and prays and attends church regularly.)

A federal district judge had granted summary judgment to the teacher on the basis of qualified-immunity over most of the suit’s claims, although the judge ruled for the student over Corbett’s criticism of the other Capistrano High teacher.

The 9th Circuit panel held that Corbett was entitled to qualified immunity on all of the suit’s claims.

“We are aware of no prior case holding that a teacher violated the establishment clause by appearing critical of religion during class lectures, nor any case with sufficiently similar facts to give a teacher fair warning that such conduct was unlawful,” said the opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond C. Fisher.

Both parties agreed that AP European History could not be taught without discussing religion, the court said, and “we have no doubt that the freedom to have a frank discussion about the role of religion in history is an integral part of any advanced history course.”

In addressing religion in a public school classroom, teachers should be sensitive to students’ personal beliefs and not abuse their authority, the court said, but teachers must also foster students’ critical-thinking skills and develop their analytic abilities.

“This balance is hard to achieve, and we must be careful not to curb intellectual freedom by imposing dogmatic restrictions that chill teachers from adopting the pedagogical methods they believe are most effective,” Judge Fisher said.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.