Teacher Sued Over “Anti-Religion” Classroom Comments
Student seeks to recover damages and an injunction gagging teacher’s in-class speech.
Dr. James Corbett sits on the lawn at his high school, where a student sued Corbett claiming that he used his classroom to express derogatory views about religion and Christianity.
Photo by Keith May
Unbeknownst to California teacher Dr. James Corbett, one of his students, Chad Farnan, secretly tape recorded numerous class discussions in Corbett’s Advanced Placement European history class at Capistrano Valley High School. Farnan and his parents then sued Corbett, claiming that he used his classroom as a “bully pulpit” to express “derogatory, disparaging, and belittling” views about religion and Christianity. By making such comments, they argued, Dr. Corbett violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
It is well established that public school teachers can’t proselytize or otherwise promote religion in the classroom. In fact, one of the leading cases involved John Peloza, a biology teacher from the same high school. He lost a 1994 lawsuit challenging a school order that required him to teach evolution in his biology class and prohibited him from “attempt[ing] to convert students to Christianity or initiating conversations about [his] religious beliefs” with students.
But if the Establishment Clause prohibits teachers from promoting religion in school, does it also prohibit them from denigrating religion in school? That’s the core issue in the Farnans’ lawsuit.
Last year, the California federal court answered “yes,” and held that the Establishment Clause does require public school teachers to remain neutral toward religion. But that didn’t end the case. The court then proceeded to analyze the content of some 20 statements made in class by Corbett and recorded by Farnan to determine if he, in fact, denigrated religion.
The court found that virtually every statement Corbett made, when read in context, did not disparage religion, but was appropriate for teaching students “about European history, current world events, and deductive reasoning in preparation for the AP European history exam,” even though several of the comments offended the religious beliefs of some students.
But the court also held that a single statement by Corbett, a member of the California Teachers Association, did violate the Establishment Clause. Ironically, that statement referred to Peloza’s lawsuit. In discussing that case, Corbett stated that the biblical creationism story is “religious, superstitious nonsense.”
The court concluded that the denigration of creationism constituted the “improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.” The court sought to downplay the implications of its ruling, claiming that it protects not only Farnan, “but also protects teachers like Corbett
in carrying out their teaching duties.” Teachers are still free to foster “expansive [classroom] discussion even if a given topic may be offensive to a particular religion.”
The court refused to order Corbett to pay any money damages, finding that he was entitled to immunity because the law was unclear that the statement he made violated the Constitution. The court also declined to issue an injunction prohibiting Corbett from expressing any disapproval of religion in class or requiring the school district to monitor Corbett’s classroom lectures. Both sides have appealed the case. A decision is not expected until the end of this year.
The issue of religion in schools can be a minefield, so NEA has joined other education and conservative religious organizations in publishing A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools.
Michael D. Simpson
NEA Office of General CounselTeacher Sued Over “Anti-Religion” Classroom Comments