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Teacher's Criticism of Religion Draws Rebuke


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.


I guess that means that you can't say that the Mother ship really isn't waiting for us, since that may violate a religious belief?

Hardly a joking matter. Students have right to hold to their religious beliefs without being held up to public ridicule by their teachers (and vice versa). Teachers should be teaching and modeling respect and professionalism. Not all opinions need to be voiced, and certainly not in such a crude manner.

It's a tough balance, speaking out about what you believe and not sneering when others profess their own beliefs. I think the teacher in this situation really should have exercised more tolerance.

As a high school astronomy teacher in the liberal state of Massachusetts creationism often arises when discussing the big bang theory, string theory, etc. I always express that I refrain from voicing my personal beliefs in favor of the logical reasoning behind the existence or not of a creator or creative force; which is that there is a design to creation which may/not indicate a creator. We discuss patterns in the universe and on Earth and then move on. Opt out of the discussion, keep it objective, defer to logic and stay professional folks!

I agree with your School Law..
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