We’ve been waiting a long time for this one. Our last update was James Corbett Case: Update 12 Feb ‘11. The only news then was that the appellate court heard oral argument from the parties. The next few indented paragraphs provide background information, which most of you can skip:
This is about Dr. James Corbett, an Advanced Placement European history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, California, whose classroom remarks that creationism is “superstitious nonsense” were ruled to have violated the Constitution’s establishment clause. He was sued by Chad Farnan, one of his students — presumably a creationist.
Chad had also sued the school board — which was found not liable by the trial court. Both Corbett and Chad are appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Corbett wants to be exonerated, and Chad wants the court to impose even more liability. During the appeal, Chad dropped his claim against the school board in exchange for their agreement to drop their claim against him for legal fees. Only Chad’s claims against Corbett remain. Corbett’s attorney is Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s law school.
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has many of the court pleadings available online. See: C. F. v. Capistrano USD.
All the news stories we’ve seen so far are copies of something from the Associated Press, which doesn’t allow us to excerpt anything, so we may have to update this post when we have a better source of information. Aha — NCSE has the opinion at their website: C.F. v. CAPISTRANO USD (29-page pdf file). The opinion is written by Judge Raymond Fisher, and the three-judge panel was unanimous. Here are a few excerpts, but the opinion should be read in its entirety:
Even statements exhibiting some hostility to religion do not violate the Establishment Clause if the government conduct at issue has a secular purpose, does not have as its principal or primary effect inhibiting religion and does not foster excessive government entanglement with religion. … More to the point, we are aware of no prior case holding that a teacher violated the Establishment Clause by appearing critical of religion during class lectures, nor any case with sufficiently similar facts to give a teacher “fair warning” that such conduct was unlawful.
[N]othing in the law would make clear to a reasonable person that he might violate the Establishment Clause by making the challenged statements in the context of a classroom discussion in an Advanced Placement history course.
The only cases that Farnan argued in his briefs clearly establish the law in the relevant educational context involve claims that school officials were promoting religion rather than expressing hostility toward it, and challenge systemic actions such as state laws and school district policies rather than parsing individual teachers’ classroom discussions.
[W]e cannot conclude that a reasonable teacher standing in Corbett’s shoes would have been on notice that his actions might be unconstitutional. [Citations omitted.]. We therefore affirm the district court’s decision that Corbett was entitled to qualified immunity.
And here’s the court’s conclusion (the quote marks and brackets are in the original):
“[T]he Establishment Clause presents especially difficult questions of interpretation and application,” and we cannot expect Corbett to have divined the law without the guidance of any prior case on point. Id. at 392. Because we conclude that Corbett is entitled to the protection of qualified immunity, we affirm the district court’s judgment granting qualified immunity. Because we do not reach the constitutionality of any of Corbett’s statements, we vacate the district court’s judgment in that respect. Each party shall bear its own costs on appeal.
This looks like a solid win for Corbett, and a wash-out for the creationist student. As we said in one of our earlier posts:
[T]he key to this case isn’t whether Chad can go through life with a silly smirk on his face; what matters here is whether there’s any money to be made in creationist litigation. If this case provides a good fee for Chad’s legal team, there will be an incentive for more of the same.
Children and their parents will be used as tools for rapacious “family values” lawyers. Creationist kids will be listening intently in class — not to learn any history or science, but to detect any “ungodly” expressions their teachers may make. Good teachers — who are already on the endangered species list — will become extinct.
Chad’s lawyers can still run around staging fund-raisers to keep their activities going, but we imagine Dr. Corbett is feeling rather good about the opinion. Unless Chad and his lawyers try to get the US Supreme Court to hear the case, it’s over. And it’s a happy ending.
End notes: While we were drafting this, the NCSE posted an article about it: Vindication for Corbett. And the Orange County Register has a good article: Teacher can’t be sued over anti-Christian remarks. It says:
Corbett said he hopes the ruling will empower more teachers to critically discuss religious concepts in classrooms.
“My classes have Jews, Hindus, Bahai, Muslims, Buddhists, and others,” he said. “Chad would demand a special place for his views, but in America, all beliefs should be treated equally by government.”
So there you are, dear reader. And congratulations, Dr. Corbett!
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