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.
On May 1, U.S. District Judge James Selna ruled in a lawsuit filed by student Chad Farnan in 2007. The lawsuit claimed that teacher James Corbett violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause 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 uncomfortable.
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 classroom lecture.
But Selna ruled May 1 in C.F. v. Capistrano Unified School District that one comment, where Corbett referred to creationism as “religious, superstitious nonsense,” did violate Farnan's constitutional rights.
“Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is ‘superstitious nonsense.’” Selna wrote. “The Court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context. The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.”
Selna wrote in his ruling that he tried to balance Farnan's and Corbett's rights.
“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 teaching duties.”
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 hostility.
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 behavior.
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 May 1, 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 return a message in time for this story.
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 on May 1 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.