Judge: Teacher's anti-religion remark violated rights
May. 4, 2009 04:37 PM
SANTA ANA, Calif. - A federal judge ruled that a public high school history
teacher violated the First Amendment when he called creationism "superstitious
nonsense" during a classroom lecture.
U.S. District Judge James Selna ruled Friday in a lawsuit student Chad Farnan
filed in 2007, alleging that teacher James Corbett violated the establishment
clause of the First Amendment by making repeated comments in class that were
hostile to Christian beliefs.
The lawsuit cited more than 20 statements made by Corbett during one day of
class, which Farnan recorded, to support allegations of a broader teaching
method that "favors irreligion over religion" and made Christian students feel
During the course of the litigation, the judge found that most of the statements
cited in the court papers did not violate the First Amendment because they did
not refer directly to religion or were appropriate in the context of the
But Selna ruled Friday that one comment, where Corbett referred to creationism
as "religious, superstitious nonsense," did violate Farnan's constitutional
Selna wrote in his ruling that he tried to balance Farnan's and Corbett's
"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," the judge wrote.
"The decision also reflects that there are boundaries. ... The ruling today
protects Farnan, but also protects teachers like Corbett in carrying out their
Corbett, a 20-year teaching veteran, remains at Capistrano Valley High School.
Farnan is now a junior at the school, but quit Corbett's Advanced Placement
European history class after his teacher made the comments.
Farnan is not interested in monetary damages, said his attorney, Jennifer Monk
of the Murrieta-based Christian legal group Advocates for Faith & Freedom.
Instead, he plans to ask the court to prohibit Corbett from making similar
comments in the future. Farnan's family would also like to see the school
district offer teacher training and monitor Corbett's classroom for future
violations, Monk said.
There are no plans to appeal the judge's rulings on the other statements listed
in the litigation, she said.
"They lost, he violated the establishment clause," she told The Associated Press
in a phone interview. "From our perspective, whether he violated it with one
statement or with 19 statements is irrelevant."
The establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from
making any law establishing religion. The clause has been interpreted by U.S.
courts to also prohibit government employees from displaying religious
Selna said that although Corbett was only found to have violated the
establishment clause in a single instance, he could not excuse or overlook the
In a ruling last month, the judge dismissed all but two of the statements Farnan
complained about, including Corbett's comment that "when you put on your Jesus
glasses, you can't see the truth."
On Friday, Selna also dismissed one of the two remaining statements, saying that
Corbett may have been attempting to quote Mark Twain when he said religion was
"invented when the first con man met the first fool."
Corbett has declined to comment throughout the litigation. His attorney, Dan
Spradlin, did not immediately return a message left Monday by The Associated
Spradlin has said, however, that Corbett made the remark about creationism
during a classroom discussion about a 1993 case in which a former Capistrano
Valley High science teacher sued the school district because it required
instruction in evolution.
Spradlin has said Corbett was simply expressing his own opinion that the former
teacher shouldn't have presented his religious views to students.
Farnan's family released a statement Friday calling the judge's ruling a
vindication of the teen's constitutional rights.
The Capistrano Unified School District, which paid for Corbett's attorney, was
found not liable for Corbett's classroom conduct.