A California teacher is immune from a student’s lawsuit claiming that his classroom comments were hostile to religion, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The three-judge panel declined to decide whether any of teacher James Corbett’s comments during an Advanced Placement European history class at Capistrano Valley High School, in Mission Viejo, violated the student’s First Amendment right to be free from government establishment of religion.
Instead, it held unanimously that it was not clearly established that a teacher could violate the establishment clause by appearing hostile to religion during class lectures, so Mr. Corbett was entitled to qualified immunity.
According to court papers, Mr. Corbett 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, who believes in creationism, objected to numerous comments Mr. Corbett made during the course in 2007.
For example, the teacher said the strong religious beliefs of European peasants helped keep them from improving their position in society. The student said Mr. Corbett also belittled creationism and criticized a teacher who years earlier had been involved in a controversy over promoting creation theories.
Both parties agreed that an AP European history course 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, the court said, teachers should be sensitive to students’ personal beliefs but also foster students’ critical-thinking skills.
“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 Raymond C. Fisher wrote in the opinion for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as Teacher Can’t Be Sued for Comments on Religion