Texas: Christina Comer’s Lawsuit Dismissed

WE first posted about the Comer litigation here: Victim of Anti-Evolution Discrimination Files Lawsuit, and we followed up with this: Comer v. Scott — Background Information.

Simply put, Christina Comer sued the Texas Education Agency (the “TEA”) and Education Commissioner Robert Scott, alleging that she was fired merely because she forwarded an email from the National Center for Science Education’s Glenn Branch announcing a talk by NCSE board member Dr. Barbara Forrest, who was to give a lecture that was critical of teaching of intelligent design in science classes.

One might say that she was “expelled.”

News of this litigation has been scarce in recent months, but now, in the Dallas Morning News, we read: Ex-Texas Education Agency employee’s lawsuit tossed in ouster over creationism e-mail. Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday by a former state science curriculum director who alleged that she was illegally fired for sending out an e-mail on a lecture that was critical of those wanting to teach creationism in science classes.

Let’s read on:

Comer said in her suit that the agency’s neutrality policy [regarding evolution and creationism] had the effect of endorsing religion, and thus violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

State attorneys said Comer was fired for sending out e-mails from the TEA Web site that gave the impression the agency supported the views of a lecture speaker, Barbara Forrest, who wrote a book critical of the tactics of creationists and their attempts to inject religion into science classes.

They certainly wouldn’t want anyone getting that impression! Now here’s what happened in court:

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel sided with the state and Scott on Tuesday, granting a motion for summary judgment and dismissing the lawsuit. Yeakel had indicated during a hearing in December that he was skeptical of Comer’s claims.

“Summary judgment” means that there was no issue of fact to be tried, so the judge could rule “summarily.” Litigants frequently file motions for summary judgment, but (unless one party’s case is total nonsense) the other side almost always convinces the court that some significant issues remain to be tried.

It’s not unusual for summary judgments to be overturned on appeal, and then the case is sent back to the trial court for further proceedings. Because trial judges don’t like being reversed, they’re often reluctant to grant summary judgment. But it happens.

It’s possible that the parties had stipulated to what all the events had been, in which case no trial was necessary and the judge was required to rule for one side or the other based on the uncontroverted facts. At this point we don’t know what the situation was in the Comer case, but we have our doubts that both sides stipulated to everything. Hey, we weren’t there, so maybe that’s exactly what happened.

One more excerpt:

TEA officials also said Comer made unauthorized remarks not connected to the debate over creationism during her tenure at the agency, another factor in her termination. She was the science curriculum director for 10 years.

There’s more to the article, but that’s the essence of it. Unless there’s an appeal, and we suspect there will be, the Comer litigation is over.

Addendum: One of our far-flung network of clandestine operatives supplied us with a copy of the judge’s ruling, for which we are grateful. We are now informed that both parties moved for summary judgment, so in effect, both agreed that there were no factual issues to be tried. The judge took no procedural risk in granting such judgment.

Essentially, the facts were the existence of the Agency’s neutrality policy, Comer’s email, and her firing. It all boiled down to whether the neutrality policy was unconstitutional. It seems that the policy applied way beyond the evolution-creationism issue. It applied to all curriculum issues, because the Agency had no role in designing the curriculum — that was the job of McLeroy’s Board of Education. Thus the neutrality policy had a secular origin, and if it advanced religion in this one instance, that was incidental to the policy’s purpose. So Comer’s violation of a secular policy wasn’t a constitutional problem, and therefore (said the court) she had no case.

Second Addendum: The court pleadings have been placed online and can be found here: Legal Documentation for Comer v. Scott.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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10 responses to “Texas: Christina Comer’s Lawsuit Dismissed

  1. UNhappy monkey. :-(

  2. John Phillips, FCD

    I love how it is us supposedly doing the expelling but it is always our side who invariably end up getting expelled. Hypocrisy, thy name is religion.

    And yes Colloquy, very UNhappy monkey here too.

  3. I added an addendum at the end of the article, after I was supplied with a copy of the court’s ruling.

  4. Thus the neutrality policy had a secular origin, and if It advanced religion in this one instance, that was incidental to the policy’s purpose.

    Oh for… it’s a misuse of a secular policy motivated by religious fundamentalism! What nonsense. It would be interesting to see what would have happened if she circulated an email about a talk by Ken Ham.

  5. James says: “Oh for… it’s a misuse of a secular policy motivated by religious fundamentalism!”

    So it seems, but the judge ruled otherwise. Except in the most egregious cases, they tend to be deferential to apparently benign government policies, assuming that they are well intentioned. That’s rebuttable, but it requires strong facts. I thought Comer had strong facts, but the judge didn’t see it that way. Were it up to me, the presumption would always be the reverse.

  6. A bunch of the legal filings, including the dismissal, are now posted at http://ncseweb.org/creationism/legal/chris-comer-docs

  7. Thanks, Glenn. Good info. I’ve deleted the period in your original comment.

    And I added your link to the end of my post on this topic.

  8. The ruling makes a crazy sort of sense. The administration that works for the board can’t favor one board member over another. School board members may boneheadedly consider policies that are unconstitutional; when that happens the administrators can’t (in their role as civil servants) point out the board member’s boneheadedness in public.

    What Comer’s lawyer has to do now is find an instance where the administration did exactly that. I can imagine there might be historical cases where a board member said something truly stupid or offensive and the administration made a public statement distancing themselves from it. But that’s just idle speculation.

  9. eric says: “What Comer’s lawyer has to do now is …”

    I donno. I’m guessing that a stronger case would be to argue (if it’s in the record) that no other Agency employees were ever fired for violating the “neutrality policy,” so that the polity’s application in Comer’s case was (at least arguably) motivated solely because of the creationism issue. An apparently secular policy that is never enforced except in one clearly religious dispute might be enough to overturn the summary judgment and send the matter back for trial.

    It all depends on the facts. And at this point it’s probably too late to get new facts into the record, so Comer’s lawyers have to go with what they’ve got.