SANTA ANA – A Mission Viejo high school history teacher violated the First Amendment by disparaging Christians during a classroom lecture, a federal judge ruled today.
James Corbett, a 20-year teacher at Capistrano Valley High School, referred to Creationism as “religious, superstitious nonsense” during a 2007 classroom lecture, denigrating his former Advanced Placement European history student, Chad Farnan.
The decision is the culmination of a 16-month legal battle between Corbett and Farnan – a conflict the judge said should remind teachers of their legal “boundaries” as public school employees.
“Corbett states an unequivocal belief that Creationism is ‘superstitious nonsense,'” U.S. District Court Judge James Selna said in a 37-page ruling released from his Santa Ana courtroom. “The court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context.”
In a December 2007 lawsuit, Farnan, then a sophomore, accused Corbett of repeatedly promoting hostility toward Christians in class and advocating “irreligion over religion” in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
The establishment clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion” and has been interpreted by U.S. courts to also prohibit government employees from displaying religious hostility.
“We are thrilled with the judge’s ruling and feel it sets great precedent,” said Farnan’s attorney, Jennifer Monk, who works for the Christian legal group Advocates for Faith &Freedom in Murrieta. “Hopefully, teachers in the future, including Dr. Corbett, will think about what they’re saying and attempt to ensure they’re not violating the establishment clause as Dr. Corbett has done.”
Chad Farnan and his parents did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment, but released a prepared statement through their attorney: “We are proud of Chad’s courageous stand and thrilled with the judge’s ruling. It is a vindication of his constitutional rights.”
Fees, injunction to be determined
Farnan’s original lawsuit asked for damages and attorney’s fees. These issues – plus a possible court injunction prohibiting Corbett from making hostile remarks about religion – will be considered in court at a future, undetermined date, Monk said.
Advocates for Faith &Freedom does not have an estimate yet of the legal fees the group incurred, she added.
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.
“To entertain an exception for conduct that might be characterized as isolated or de minimis undermines the basic right in issue: to be free of a government that directly expresses disapproval of religion,” Selna said.
Farnan’s lawsuit had cited more than 20 inflammatory statements attributed to Corbett, including “Conservatives don’t want women to avoid pregnancies – that’s interfering with God’s work” and “When you pray for divine intervention, you’re hoping that the spaghetti monster will help you get what you want.”
In an April 3 tentative ruling, however, Selna dismissed all but two of the statements as either not directly referring to religion or as being appropriate in the context of a class lecture, including the headline-grabbing “When you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”
“We’re happy that the court saw 99.9 percent of the case our way, but we’re disappointed obviously with regard to finding against Dr. Corbett on that one statement,” said Corbett’s attorney, Dan Spradlin.
Corbett, who has declined all requests to be interviewed about the lawsuit, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Lemon test applied to statements
Selna applied a three-pronged legal analysis known as the Lemon test to determine whether the establishment clause had been violated.
The Lemon test, developed during a 1971 federal court case, asks whether a statement has a secular purpose, whether it advances or inhibits religion as its principal or primary effect, and whether it fosters an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.
Corbett made his “superstitious nonsense” remark during a class discussion about a 1993 court case in which former Capistrano Valley High science teacher John Peloza sued the Capistrano Unified School District, challenging its requirement that Peloza teach evolution.
Corbett’s attorney said Corbett simply expressing his personal opinion that Peloza shouldn’t have presented religious views to students. Selna, after reviewing an audio-taped recording of the discussion, decided that wasn’t the case and that Corbett crossed a legal line.
For the other disputed statement – in which Corbett was accused of saying religion was “invented when the first con man met the first fool” – the judge ruled in Corbett’s favor, arguing Corbett may have been simply attempting to quote American author Mark Twain.
Corbett’s full statement was, “What was it Mark Twain said? ‘Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.'”
The Capistrano Unified School District, which paid for Corbett’s attorney, was found not liable for Corbett’s classroom conduct.
Corbett remains in his teaching position at Capistrano Valley High. Farnan, who dropped out of Corbett’s class after filing the lawsuit, is now a junior at the school.
“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,” Selna said in his written decision.
“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.”