(CN) – A California teacher cannot be sued for dismissing creationism as “superstitious nonsense” and making other statements that were critical of biblical literalists and magical thinking, the 9th Circuit ruled.
James Corbett, a longtime history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School, is no stranger to the 9th Circuit. Fellow teacher John Peloza sued Capistrano Unified School District, Corbett and others in the 1990s, claiming that the district violated the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause by requiring him to teach evolutionism. Corbett had been adviser to the school’s student newspaper when an editor wrote an article suggesting that Peloza was teaching religion instead of science. The 9th Circuit ruled for the district in 1994.
But Corbett’s criticism of Peloza years later brought Corbett back to the federal appeals court to fight charges that he had again violated the establishment clause, which bars public employees from either endorsing or being hostile toward a religion. In 2007, then 15-year-old sophomore Chad Farnan sued Corbett for disparaging Christianity and creationism in an Advanced Placement European history class. Farnan, who is now a college student, said Corbett violated his rights by making more than 20 comments during class that were “hostile to religion in general, and to Christianity in particular,” according to the ruling.
Many of the allegedly offensive comments, which are quoted in the ruling at length from a lower court decision, came during classroom discussions about the scientific method and its historical significance. Prior to the start of school year, Corbett had sent a letter to all of his AP history students, warning them that class discussions would be “quite provocative and focus on the ‘lessons’ of history,” according to the ruling.
“Um, see, people believed before the scientific revolution that the Bible was literal and that anything that happened, God did it,” Corbett said, according to quotations in the ruling, which are taken from transcripts of recordings of Corbett’s classes. “They didn’t understand. They didn’t have the scientific method. They didn’t approach truth. The explanation to everything literally was that God did it. And the ultimate authority … was the Bible.”
Corbett also said: “Aristotle was a physicist. He said, ‘No movement without movers.’ And he argued that, you know, there sort of has to be a God. Of course that’s nonsense. I mean, that’s what you call deductive reasoning, you know. And you hear it all the time with people who say, ‘Well, if all this stuff that makes up the universe is here, something must have created it.’ Faulty logic. Very faulty logic.”
And about creationists, he said, “They never try to disprove creationism. They’re all running around trying to prove it. That’s deduction. It’s not science. Scientifically, it’s nonsense.”
In a controversial 2009 ruling, U.S. District Judge James Selna in Santa Ana, Calif., granted summary judgment to the student for Corbett’s criticism of Peloza, the teacher who sued in the 1990s over teaching evolution. Corbett had said Peloza was trying to teach “religious, superstitious nonsense.”
The rest of the ruling awarded Corbett qualified immunity for his other statements, such as discussing the availability of birth control pills at middle school health centers and for criticizing abstinence-only policies.
Both parties appealed, with Corbett seeking complete immunity and Farnan trying to hold the teacher liable for his other remarks.
On Friday, a three-judge appellate panel in Pasadena said Corbett had complete immunity for all of his statements and that it would not evaluate the constitutionality of any of the remarks.
“In broaching controversial issues like religion, teachers must be sensitive to students’ personal beliefs and take care not to abuse their positions of authority,” Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the panel. “But teachers must also be given leeway to challenge students to foster critical thinking skills and develop their analytical abilities. This balance is hard to achieve, and we must be careful not to curb intellectual freedom by imposing dogmatic restrictions that chill teachers from adopting the pedagogical methods they believe are most effective.”
“At some point a teacher’s comments on religion might cross the line and rise to the level of unconstitutional hostility,” Fisher added. “But without any cases illuminating the ‘”dimly perceive[d] … line[ ] of demarcation”‘ between permissible and impermissible discussion of religion in a college level history class, we cannot conclude that a reasonable teacher standing in Corbett’s shoes would have been on notice that his actions might be unconstitutional.”