Monday, May 04, 2009

Can't Disparage Religion in California Schools

I admit, this ruling surprises me:

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 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 Friday that one comment, where Corbett referred to creationism as "religious, superstitious nonsense," did violate Farnan's constitutional rights...

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.

I'm not saying that it's acceptable behavior for the man to disparage people's religious beliefs, but I definitely cannot view his actions as a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Update: a much more academic commentary can be found here.

Yet how does this play out in other situations? Here's an example: When I taught criminal law one year, one of the hypotheticals involves the question whether casting a voodoo spell on someone, believing that it would cause the person to die, should count as a criminally punishable attempted murder. That's a difficult question; as I noted before, a few court opinions have considered it and quickly concluded that it shouldn't so count, but as a doctrinal matter it's not clear why -- generally speaking, trying to kill someone is attempted murder even if the attempt is clearly doomed to failure, for instance because you think your gun works but it's actually broken, or because you use a substance that you think is poison but really isn't. Why not if you use a method (voodoo) that you think works but actually doesn't?
...
A couple of students after class actually told me that they thought this might be offensive to people who believe in voodoo, but my view was that I can't teach my classes with an eye towards not offending people who believe in voodoo, just as I don't have to worry about people who believe in ghosts or werewolves or unicorns. But under the court's reasoning, would I have been violating the Establishment Clause?
...
But the result is either that (1) teachers can't condemn voodoo, astrology, young-Earthism, and so on as the bunk that they are, (2) courts have to draw lines between which religious beliefs may be disapproved of and which may not be, or (3) teachers are even more at see about what they are constitutionally barred from saying than we've seen from past endorsement cases.


Like I said, a much more academic commentary.

8 comments:

Ronnie said...

And we agree on this one too, what has the world come to? He was clearly over stepping lines, but none of them had anything to do with the First Amendment. This should have been settled with an apology, not a lawsuit with a far reaching precedent.

sciencectn said...

In my opinion, taking him directly to court over it without offering any warning that it was offensive is quite extreme. Couldn't they have complained to the office or directly to the teacher first?

I bet there's more to the story. Perhaps these Christians who were offended had a history of hostility with the teacher. Maybe they were angry because they repeatedly lost in-class debates about creationism...

Luke said...

Ah, but now the precedent is set, and a teacher almost has to allow appropriate discussion of religious views in class, especially science and history classes.

Anonymous said...

if he had said something that a homosexual found offensive, would you all be up in arms and saying, "oh great, now we have to let them talk about gayness in class!" or would you be like, "unbelievable! he offended a homosexual! of course he should've been taken to court!"

why is it that everyone else can get offended except christians? if a christian is offended, it's because they are hostile and super-ultra-conservative and NO ONE should have to tolerate a christian.

is it because you feel that christians don't tolerate you? so, if someone is intolerant, than you don't have to be tolerant of them?

~julia

Ellen K said...

So when that kids from the family who worships the devil comes to class with various implements for show and tell, I guess the normal proscriptions against knives, fire and such won't apply.

Darren said...

Julia, to whom is your comment directed?

Vernon Malcolm said...

Don't be so quick to defend evolution just because the wingnuts hate it. Darwin led to the worst colonial, militarist, attrocity and stock market abuses in history. Lamarkian inhertiance and mitochondrial DNA show that Darwin was not all he is crackered up to be. So don't defend him! These angry white talk radio males need universal health care so they can finally see a psychistrist. We also need to psychiatrically regulate the preachers and teachers who influenced such creatures. That is what homeland security is really about.

Darren said...

Oh look! Another leftie nutjob makes an appearance. Clearly they're not an endangered species.