Sunday, May 03, 2009

Creationist goes to court to silence critic

I guess that's what's left when prayer doesn't work.

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.


That's the takeaway message from the Orange County Register, but a closer examination shows that the court was clearly wrong, and is likely to be overturned if the teacher has the resources to appeal this decision.

The suit, brought by a creationist former student of the defendant, attacked James Corbett for a large number of statements that the plaintiff construed as being opposed to religion, yet the court found only one that, in its view, actually violated the student's First Amendment rights.

The test by which government actions may be said to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is referred to as the "Lemon test", because it was first articulated in the Supreme Court's decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 406 U.S. 602 (1971). Under the Lemon test,

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.


Usually cases raising the Lemon test involve legislation, such as "moment of silence" legislation, but they apply to other circumstances in which a government official, like a public school teacher, is claimed to have taken a position that has the effect of establishing a particular religious view. In this case the court rejected the plaintiff's general claim that the defendant's statements had the effect of establishing a "religion of secularism", but it did find that one statement in particular failed the Lemon test.

The Court turns first to Corbett’s statement regarding John Peloza (“Peloza”). (Farnan’s Ex. I, pp. 222-25.) This statement presents the closest question for the Court in assessing secular purpose. Peloza apparently brought suit against Corbett because Corbett was the advisor to a student newspaper which ran an article suggesting that Peloza was teaching religion rather than science in his classroom. (Id.) Corbett explained to his class that Peloza, a teacher, “was not telling the kids [Peloza’s students] the scientific truth about evolution.” (Id.) Corbett also told his students that, in response to a request to give Peloza space in the newspaper to present his point of view, Corbett stated, “I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.” (Id.) One could argue that Corbett meant that Peloza should not be presenting his religious ideas to students or that Peloza was presenting faulty science to the students. But there is more to the statement: Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is “superstitious nonsense.” 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.

The court is clearly wrong here in finding no secular purpose because it fails to adequately consider the nature of Peloza's religious statements that Corbett describes as "superstitious nonsense". In fact, Corbett's statement was not a wholesale attack on Peloza's religious beliefs, but on the factual claims made by creationists. These claims are not only religious in nature, but are demonstrably false, and have been shown to be so by a century and a half of scientific study. Thus, the description of creationism as "superstitious nonsense" is precisely identical to the description of astrology, or the belief that the earth sits on the back of a gigantic turtle, as "superstitious nonsense". As such, any public school teacher is justified in criticizing another teacher for teaching false and superstitious nonsense in the science classes of a public school. The district court is clearly wrong here.

There is another interesting point here. The particular statement that Corbett is sued for, and which the court found was a violation of the Establishment Clause, is the statement that creationism is "superstitious nonsense". In other words, it was a statement criticizing the religious beliefs of both the other teacher, but also the plaintiff. As you probably know, for years creationists have claimed that creationism, which they now prefer to call "intelligent design", and previously called "scientific creationism", is not religion at all, but science. This claim was authoritatively disposed of in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005), in which the supporters of creationism brought in the leading experts in their field and mounted a valiant effort to establish the scientific validity of creationism, only to be thoroughly discredited in court. Yet in this case, the only way for the plaintiff to prevail is to demonstrate the essentially religious nature of the tenets of creationism. Thus, even in winning, the creationists lose.

Stranger things have happened, but it's hard to see this decision standing up on appeal.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does it matter to the law here whether or not what Peloza would have written for the student newspaper is superstitious nonsense? Isn't the standard that teachers neither promote religion nor be hostile to it, as documented in the decision, not whether their promotion or hostility is true?

I certainly see the secular purpose of promoting good science, but the judge found that the teacher's words went beyond that. Maybe this amounts to prohibiting bad manners, but if that's where the law takes a judge, I don't see that such a decision will be automatically overturned.

May 04, 2009 10:51 AM  
Blogger Jack McCullough said...

There's a key difference betwen denouncing Peloza's religion, as in "Christianity is superstitious nonsense," and criticizing the superstitious nonsense that makes up the content of the teachings of creationism.

May 04, 2009 11:04 PM  
Blogger Ben Paz said...

I have to agree with you that the "victory" that Farnan et al. claim is going to be short lived, since the statement by Corbett is not exactly a blindingly clear example of comments outside of Lemon. Further review of this ruling in the higher courts will most likely bear this out, much to my chagrin...

May 06, 2009 1:07 AM  

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