Teacher’s Criticism of Religion Draws Rebuke

By Mark Walsh — May 05, 2009 2 min read
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A decision last Friday by a federal district judge in California in a lawsuit over a teacher’s comments in the classroom is getting a lot of attention. It was even discussed on “The View” today.

Judge James V. Selna of Santa Ana, Calif., ruled that a teacher’s classroom statement that creationism is “superstitious nonsense” violated the rights of a student in the teacher’s Advanced Placement European history course.

The statement by teacher James Corbett “primarily sends a message of disapproval of religion or creationism,” Judge Selna said in his May 1 opinion, and that violates the First Amendment right of student Chad Farnan to be free from government establishment of religion.

What is getting less attention from the somewhat disjointed 37-page opinion is how many other of the teacher’s challenged statements the judge held did not violate the establishment clause.

The lawsuit on behalf of Farnan and his parents, filed by the Murrieta, Calif.-based group Advocates for Faith & Freedom, claimed that Corbett had a pattern of expressing views that “are derogatory, disparaging, and belittling regarding religion and Christianity in particular.” The suit cited statements by Corbett on the role of religion for peasants in the Middle Ages, the Boy Scouts’ requirement that members profess a belief in God, abstinence-only sex education policies, and others.

Judge Selna said most of the statements either didn’t raise any Establishment Clause concerns or that the teacher deserved the benefit of the doubt because he may have using them to teach something related to European history or deductive reasoning.

The “superstitious nonsense” comment, however, went too far, the judge said. “The court’s ruling today reflects the constitutionally-permissible need for expansive discussion even if a given topic may be offensive to a particular religion or if a particular religion takes one side of a historical debate,” Judge Selna said, but it “also reflects that there are boundaries.”

The judge ruled that the Capistrano Unified School District could not be held liable for the teacher’s remarks. He granted summary judgment to the Farnans regarding the “superstitious nonsense” comment and judgment to the teacher and school district on all other counts of the suit.

The suit sought only nominal damages and a court order barring the teacher from making remarks hostile to religion. It’s not clear from the opinion just how much relief the judge granted. According to this Associated Press story, Advocates for Faith & Freedom plans to ask the judge to order teacher training and to monitor Corbett’s remarks in class.

The California Teachers’ Association filed these court papers in the case, raising concerns about the First Amendment rights of teachers.

Advocates for Faith & Freedom also has posted these court papers from the school district answering the suit.

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